Japan questions its sudden coronavirus control success


Almost overnight, Japan turned into an extraordinary and somewhat mysterious coronavirus success story.

Daily new cases fell from a peak in mid-August of nearly 6,000 in Tokyo to less than 100 in the densely populated capital – an 11-month low.

Still, the bars are packed, the trains are crowded, and there is general perplexity as to what, exactly, is behind the sharp drop.

Japan, unlike other places in Europe and Asia, has never experienced anything close to a lockdown, but rather a series of relatively toothless states of emergency.

Some possible factors for Japan’s success include a late but remarkably rapid vaccination campaign, a clearing of many nightlife areas as fears have spread over the recent increase in cases, a widespread practice of wearing masks even before the outbreak. pandemic and bad weather at the end of August that kept people at home.

But with the gradual decline in vaccine efficacy and the approach of winter, experts fear that, without knowing why cases have dropped so drastically, Japan could face another wave like this summer, when the hospitals have been overflowing with severe cases of COVID-19 and deaths have skyrocketed – although the numbers are lower than pre-vaccination levels.

Many attribute the reduction in infections to the vaccination campaign, especially among young people. Almost 70% of the population is fully vaccinated.

“Rapid and intensive vaccinations in Japan for those under 64 may have created a temporary condition similar to herd immunity,” said Kazuhiro Tateda, professor of virology at the University of Toho.

Tateda noted that vaccination rates increased from July to September, as the most infectious Delta variant was spreading rapidly.

He warned, however, that breakthrough infections in the United States, Britain and other places where inoculations began months earlier than in Japan show that vaccines alone are not perfect and that effectiveness gradually fades.

Vaccinations in Japan began in mid-February, with health workers and the elderly on the front lines. Shortages of imported vaccines slowed progress until the end of May, when supply stabilized and daily inoculation targets were raised to over one million doses to maximize protection by July 23. -August. 8 Tokyo Olympics.

The number of daily vaccines jumped to around 1.5 million in July, pushing vaccination rates from 15% in early July to 65% in early October, surpassing 57% in the United States.

New infections rose just weeks before the Olympics, forcing Japan to host the Games with a daily case count of more than 5,000 in Tokyo and around 20,000 nationwide in early August. But on Sunday, Tokyo reported just 40 cases, below 100 for the ninth consecutive day and the lowest number this year. Nationwide, Japan reported 429 cases on Sunday for a cumulative total of around 1.71 million and 18,000 deaths since the pandemic began early last year.

So why the fall?

“This is a difficult question, and we have to consider the effect of advances in vaccination, which is extremely important,” said the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Norio Ohmagari. “At the same time, people who congregate in high-risk environments, such as crowded and less ventilated places, may have already been infected and have gained natural immunity by now. “

Although some have speculated that the drop in cases could be due to fewer tests, data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showed the positivity rate fell from 25% in late August to 1% in mid-October. , while the number of tests fell by only a third. . Masataka Inokuchi, deputy chief of the Tokyo Medical Assn., Said falling positivity rates show infections have slowed.

Japan’s state of emergency measures were not closures but demands that mainly focused on bars and restaurants, which were to close early and not serve alcohol. Many people continued to travel on crowded trains and attended sporting and cultural events in stadiums with some social distancing checks.

Emergency demands have ended and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activity while allowing sporting events and organized trips on a trial basis using vaccination certificates and increased testing.

To speed up vaccinations, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who recently stepped down, increased the number of health workers legally allowed to administer vaccines, opened large-scale vaccination centers and promoted vaccinations across the country. workplace from the end of June.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura told a recent government advisory board meeting that he estimated vaccinations had helped some 650,000 people avoid infection and saved more than 7,200 lives. between March and September.

Many experts initially accused young people, seen drinking on the streets and in parks when bars were closed, of spreading the virus, but said data showed many in their 40s and 40s. 50s also frequented the nightlife districts. The most serious cases and deaths were in unvaccinated people in their 50s or younger.

Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, recently told reporters he was concerned people have already resumed partying in nightlife districts, noting that the slowdown in infections may have already bottomed out. .

“Going forward, it is important to further reduce the number of cases in the event of a future resurgence of infections,” Wakita said Thursday.

New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Friday that a preparedness plan to be developed by early November would include tighter limits on activities and require hospitals to provide more beds and staff for COVID treatment. 19 in case infections increase in the “worst case”. ”

He did not give details.

Many people are reluctant to let their guard down, regardless of the number.

Wearing the mask “has become so normal,” said university student Mizuki Kawano. “I am still worried about the virus,” she said.

“I don’t want to go near those who don’t wear masks,” added Kawano’s friend Alice Kawaguchi.

Public health experts want a full investigation into why infections have declined.

Analysis of GPS data showed that people’s movements in major downtown entertainment districts declined during the third most recent state of emergency, which ended on September 30.

“I think the decrease in the number of people visiting entertainment districts, along with advances in immunization, have contributed to the decline in infections,” said Atsushi Nishida, director of the Research Center for Social and Medical Sciences of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Sciences. .

But people returned to the entertainment districts as soon as the recent emergency ended, he said, and that could “affect the infection situation in the weeks to come.”

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