Japan health panel warns of rapid domestic omicron spread

Courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases
The omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is seen in an electron micrograph.

The omicron variant of the novel coronavirus could spread rapidly, a health ministry advisory panel has warned, stressing the need to reinforce medical services and shift focus from border control to measures within the country.

“Outbreaks of a certain size seem to have occurred in communities,” the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s panel said Tuesday. “We are in a situation where we must assume a rapid surge in infections will soon occur.”

The panel also said all known omicron-infected patients in Japan who are being followed-up either are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.

Several studies abroad suggest that the omicron variant might cause less severe symptoms than the delta variant. Even so, an increase in the number of omicron patients will mean more people hospitalized, leading to a shortage of hospital beds. The situation could therefore increase the risk of severe illness and death, the panel said.

Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Kyoto University, has estimated that by around Jan. 11 more than 90% of COVID-19 patients in Osaka Prefecture will have been infected with the omicron variant. Already, the variant has spread at the community level in the prefecture. He said his estimate was based on the increase in omicron patients in Denmark.

In South Africa and Britain, omicron has rapidly overtaken delta as the main variant.

Cluster in Osaka

Also Tuesday, an omicron variant cluster was confirmed at a facility for the elderly in Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, apparently the first omicron cluster in Japan.

At the facility, two staff members were confirmed infected with the omicron variant Saturday and three residents were confirmed infected with the same Monday.

The five patients are either asymptomatic or have a mild fever.

Three more people in the facility have tested positive for the virus. The Osaka prefectural government is currently checking the type of variant in these cases.