Japan's health ministry has announced it has found a new coronavirus variant after a detailed examination of four travelers that arrived in the country from Brazil. The travelers tested positive for the variant while in quarantine at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Some of the travels presented with symptoms. One of the men in his 40s initially presented as asymptomatic but was later hospitalized after developing breathing difficulties, Bloomberg reports.
According to authorities in Japan, the new variant belongs to the B.1.1.248 strain and has 12 mutations. One of those mutations is also present in the recently identified UK and South African variants, raising concerns that the new variant in Japan may also potentially be more transmissible.
“At the moment, there is no proof showing the new variant found in those from Brazil is high in infectiousness,” stated Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), in a health ministry briefing.
A detailed investigation by the NIID is currently underway to understand the mutations discovered and to assess how infectious the new variant might be and if current vaccines will still work. On January 7, the prime minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, announced a 1-month state of emergency in Tokyo due to record high new infections in the capital.
"The situation has become increasingly troubling nationwide and we have a strong sense of crisis," the Prime Minister said in a briefing.
Currently, Japan has temporally banned entry to foreign nationals from certain countries and is on high alert with pre-screening checks at airports for anyone traveling for emergency reasons to the country due to fresh fears that the new variant might rapidly spread if it turns out to be more transmissible. This could lead to stricter measures in the country, similar to those currently experienced in the UK to try and stem the spread.
Japan has already been forced to postpone the Olympic Games that were due to take place in Tokyo in 2020. A recent survey found that about 80 percent of people in Japan want the games to be further delayed or even canceled due to the huge rise in new infections.
Most countries have now started to inoculate their populations with the multiple approved COVID-19 vaccines available, however, much about these new variants and how they may change the course of the pandemic in 2021 remains unclear.
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