173 infected with coronavirus variants in 16 prefectures in Japan

A total of 173 people in 16 prefectures as of Sunday were confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus variants prevalent in Britain, South Africa and other countries.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has said that the spread of the variants “is not an epidemic,” partly because a newly developed simple testing method has made it possible to detect them at an early stage. Even so, if the variants — which are thought to be highly infectious — spread, current COVID-19 controls may become insufficient. The government is hurrying to strengthen measures, such as by expanding the scope of testing.

The first domestic cases of the variants were confirmed on Dec. 25. Of the 173 people infected, 115 have no history of going overseas and they live in 16 different prefectures including Saitama, Niigata, Kyoto, Kagoshima and Tokyo. The British variant was confirmed in 156 cases, followed by 11 cases of the South African variant and six of the Brazilian one.

In Saitama Prefecture, where 38 people are known to have been infected, clusters have been confirmed at workplaces and child-related facilities since late January. They were detected through a simple test conducted by the prefectural health institute from Jan. 25.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases has discovered variants through genetic analysis of randomly selected specimens of infected people in Japan. However, using this method, the NIID could only test about 5% of total samples, and it took several weeks to find out the results.

This year, the NIID developed a simple method that can detect suspected cases of variant infections through PCR tests conducted by local health institutes. This has made it possible to detect patients suspected of being infected with a variant at an early stage.

This method helped to quickly confirm the Saitama Prefecture clusters, and a prefectural official said: “We have been able to track down the people involved. We want to keep the scale of infections small.”

NIID Director Takaji Wakita said Thursday, “At present, infections are sporadic,” indicating that the disease is not spreading widely in Japan.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, the first case of a coronavirus variant infection was confirmed on Jan. 18 in a person who had not been overseas, meaning the infection route is unknown. The prefecture conducted intensive testing, and the number of infected people has remained at as low as seven. The prefecture lifted its own emergency alert on Feb. 8.

“At this point, we are not saying there is an outbreak of the variant,” a prefectural official said.

However, the variants are thought to be more infectious than the original virus, and they may spread rapidly.

“Variants may be difficult to contain with current controls alone,” a senior ministry official said.

For this reason, the ministry asked prefectures and other organizations on Feb. 5 to conduct the simple tests on between 5% and 10% of infected people and send suspected cases to the NIID. It also asked that testing for suspected cases should be expanded to all people concerned, not just to those in close contact.