Govt must present updated strategy to contain the 6th wave of infections

How effective are the measures to be taken this time against a new coronavirus variant that is believed to be highly contagious but also to pose a low risk of severe symptoms?

Steps that do not rely only on restricting people’s actions should be taken as soon as possible, such as by providing booster shots and thorough testing for the virus.

In response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, the government has decided to apply quasi-emergency “priority measures” to 13 prefectures, including Tokyo, Kanagawa and Aichi, from Jan. 21 to Feb. 13.

In the target areas under the measures, the operating hours of dining establishments will be shortened, and prefectural governments will have the discretion to ask even dining establishments previously certified by the governments as countermeasures-compliant to suspend the serving of alcohol. Large events will also be limited to no more than 20,000 spectators.

Although there is no choice but to accept such restrictions, many dining establishments may worry about how to handle them concretely. To avoid a situation in which priority measures and declarations of a state of emergency are repeated again, it is necessary to implement measures that effectively combine testing, vaccinations and medicine.

An increasing number of local governments are starting to give booster shots to the elderly. In foreign countries, three doses of vaccine have been shown to be effective in preventing the onset or worsening of symptoms. In Britain, where more than half of the population has received booster shots, the number of infected people has started to decrease.

In addition to the elderly, booster shots should be given swiftly to Japan’s “essential workers,” such as police officers, firefighters and employees at nursery facilities for preschool children.

Expansion of the system to conduct testing for the virus is the key to maintaining social and economic activities. The Japanese central government estimates that up to 385,000 PCR tests can be performed per day, but this is far from enough.

In Okinawa Prefecture, where priority measures are already in effect, there has been a weeklong wait for tests by local governments and long lines have formed in front of private testing sites. There is an urgent need to expand the testing system, utilizing not only PCR tests but also antigen tests.

In Tokyo, half of the infection cases have been transmitted within households. The number of infected children is increasing, and many of them are believed to have been infected by their parents.

It is hoped that people who are confirmed to have tested positive will be allowed to recuperate in accommodation facilities as much as possible to prevent infections from spreading at home.

An oral drug from U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. that has been found to reduce the risks of hospitalization and death by 30% was approved. The drug needs to be taken immediately after the onset of symptoms for elderly patients and adults with chronic diseases. It is vital for physicians in private practice in local communities to take the initiative in examining infected patients and prescribing the drug promptly.

An application also was filed in Japan for an oral medicine from U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc. It is reportedly expected to be effective in 90% of patients. It is hoped that the drug will be used as soon as possible.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 20, 2022.