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Editorial: Japan must take cautious, thorough response to omicron variant threat

Concerns are rising over a new strain of the coronavirus first confirmed in South Africa.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has desginated it a "Variant of Concern," the same level as the Delta variant and other mutations, and named it omicron.

    The U.K., Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Australia and other regions have all discovered individuals infected with the variant.

    Omicron is spreading around the world, and there must be an investigation into a response that takes this into account.

    Numerous countries have decided to strengthen their border controls. Japan, too, has in principal banned entries of foreign nationals from across the world.

    It is a cast iron rule that countermeasures should be severe at the current stage where a virus's characteristics are not known. There was the experience of spring 2020, when Japan's slow border policy allowed European variants of the virus to enter and propagate. That failure cannot be repeated.

    For Japanese people re-entering Japan, other forms of strengthened border control policy including a system for checking on them should also be looked into.

    The omicron variant was discovered in samples obtained in early November, and is spreading in South Africa.

    It is characterized by numerous mutations on the spike protein it uses to attach itself to and infect cells. In addition to its possible increased infectivity, some have also asserted fears that it could weaken vaccine efficacy.

    In fact, it has been observed in South Africa that the omicron variant is rapidly replacing the delta variant. Infections among fully-vaccinated people are also emerging.

    At present, Japan has few infected individuals, and relaxations on movements are progressing. There are fears that if the omicron variant enters the country, infections will suddenly spread.

    It must also be kept in mind that the omicron variant may already be in Japan. We want the virus genomes of people testing positive to be analyzed, and active epidemiological surveys thoroughly conducted. It is important that the risks are quickly captured, as is a system allowing for the speedy reintroduction of movement restrictions.

    To obtain understanding for the strengthened response, the government must indicate to the people what it expects will happen in the future and what its strategy is. We want renewed attention on fundamental infection prevention measures such as mask wearing and ventilation.

    In South Africa, where the omicron variant is spreading, the vaccination rate is low at just over 20%. If the whole world is not made safe, the pandemic will not end. We want to keep this in mind as efforts to support developing countries are made.

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