On July 20, three days before the opening ceremony of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, a case of the SARS-CoV-2 Lambda variant was reported in an airport in Japan. This is classified as a variant of interest, and although little is known about it as it is relatively new, it is thought that Lambda is more transmissible and could even be more resistant to vaccines – although the research is largely split.
However, despite the concern, Japan went about reporting the case in an unusual way. Typically, when these variants are discovered for the first time in a new country, the information is quickly released to the public. In this case, for unknown reasons, the information wasn't released to the mainstream media and has only recently been released to the public – almost three weeks after detection.
The report was discovered in the GISAID variant tracking records, which tracks COVID-19 variants and how prevalent they are in each country, by The Daily Beast. On July 20, a GISAID report appeared to show Lambda entering Japan, thought to be through an individual traveling from Peru. The case was identified and the passenger entered airport quarantine, and officials do not believe the variant has reached others within Japan.
As to why the information was not released publicly, that remains a mystery. Some speculate it was to protect the Olympics from cancellation, as an anonymous employee of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases who spoke to The Daily Beast said:
“I’m not authorized to speak on the record but to my knowledge the variant was detected at an airport checkpoint and has not been in the wild,”
According to this source, this information would usually go straight out to the public – but not this time.
“There was a consensus at the Ministry of Health that this information would best be reported after the Olympics were over. Whether that is because they felt that it would be better to heighten public awareness when the news cycle slows down or whether this is because it might tangentially be associated with the Olympics, which is embarrassing – that I don’t know.”
Lambda was first reported in Peru in August 2020. Carrying new mutations appearing to make it more transmissible, it has now been seen in 35 countries, remaining most prevalent in South America. It is reportedly less worrying than the Delta variant, which has seen a sharp rise in incidences across the world as it gains dominance through increased transmissibility. While the Lambda mutations suggest it could sport a higher resistance to current mRNA vaccines, the data remains unclear about just how well the vaccines may protect against the variant.
Following its introduction to Japan weeks ago, officials have now announced the case of Lambda in the country as of Friday, but maintain that it has not spread further than the single isolated airport case.