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Over 600 people infected with COVID-19 variants in Japan, mostly UK-origin

The building housing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The spread of variant COVID-19 strains shows no signs of abating in Japan, with the number of people infected with the mutant strains totaling 549 by March 23, or 649 if airport testing is included, according to a tally released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on March 24.

    The latest count marks a rise of 164 people with variant strains over the past week. The high figures come amid concerns over a possible resurgence of the coronavirus following the lifting of the prolonged state of emergency declaration over the outbreak for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures earlier this week.

    In Kobe in western Japan and some other municipalities, the ratio of patients with coronavirus variants has been on the rise, prompting the central and local governments as well as experts to be increasingly alarmed.

    According to the health ministry, the 549 cases of coronavirus variants were confirmed in 26 out of Japan's 47 prefectures, including Tokyo and the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Of those 549 people, 501, or around 90%, contracted the U.K. variant, while 13 others tested positive for the strain initially found in South Africa, and another 35 were infected with the Brazil variant.

    Furthermore, local governments' screening tests have indicated that a cumulative total of 792 people are suspected to have been infected with variant strains.

    "I can't help but recognize that the variant strains are highly transmissible, as someone working on the front lines," said an official at the Sapporo Municipal Government. In the Hokkaido capital, 18 people were newly found to be infected with coronavirus variants on March 24. In a little over two weeks since the first mutant strain case was reported in the city on March 6, the number of people suspected to be infected with virus variants shot up to 123. Sapporo has also seen coronavirus clusters that erupted at two events organized by a food-related company.

    In Kobe, city authorities have independently conducted variant strain screening tests on some 60% of coronavirus carriers. During a one-week period up to March 11, the number of people who were found infected with coronavirus variants through unknown routes of infection accounted for 17.2% of the entire coronavirus carriers, showing a surge from 5.4% in the preceding two-week period from Feb. 19 to March 4. Furthermore, the ratio of mutant strains among samples in the screening tests in Kobe has been on the rise, reaching 55.2% in the most recent week from March 5 to 11.

    "We can't go as far as saying the variant strains have spread far and wide across the city, but the ratio of variant cases is certainly on the rise," said Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto.

    In the United Kingdom, there are analysis results showing that coronavirus variants raise transmissibility to young children and pose a higher risk of death. In Japan, children under 10 made up 14.9% of those infected with variant strains as of March 16. According to the government of central Japan's Niigata Prefecture, where suspected variant clusters broke out at a child care-related facility, 12 out of 34 people concerned who were infected with coronavirus variants were pupils of the facility. There were also multiple cases of the variants having been transmitted from pupils to their entire family members.

    Takaji Wakita, chairman of the coronavirus countermeasures advisory board to the health ministry, said, "If the infectivity among children or from children to adults is increasing, the situation is getting closer to that of the influenza (for which young children are the primary transmitters), possibly raising the need to take different countermeasures."

    (Japanese original by Sooryeon Kim and Naomi Hayashi, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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