Japan on Monday detected a coronavirus variant found in South Africa, the government said, the first such discovery in a nation that has already identified more than a dozen cases of another variant that is spreading rapidly in Britain.
A woman in her 30s who arrived in Japan on Dec. 19 was found to be infected with the new virus variant, the health ministry said. South Africa's health authorities have said the variant might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.
The announcement of the detection of the South Africa-linked variant comes after the Japanese government on Monday started banning the entry of non-resident foreign nationals following the discovery of the UK variant in Japan.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged calm ahead of the New Year holidays, when hospitals tend to be understaffed, and instructed ministers to remain alert.
"They say that no evidence is showing the vaccines that are already being administered overseas are not effective against this variant, and anti-infection steps for it are unchanged from those for the conventional virus," Suga said, referring to the new, fast-spreading UK variant.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
He spoke ahead of the announcement of the detection of the South Africa-linked variant.
"The virus recognises no year-end or New Year holidays. I ask each minister to raise the level of their sense of urgency and thoroughly carry out counter measures," he told a meeting of the government's task force on coronavirus responses.
A Japanese business traveller at Tokyo's Haneda airport, where few people were seen, said the government should do more.
"Even though Japan is doing things to counter the variant, there are still reports of cases in Japan," 56-year-old Seiji Oohira said on arriving from India, where he works for a construction-related company.
"So I think it's better to tighten the restrictions even a little bit further."
Japan is facing a third wave of novel coronavirus infections, with daily cases hitting a record 3,881 on Saturday, according to public broadcaster NHK. Fatalities hit an all-time high of 64 on Friday.Yuichiro Hata, a 53-year-old former transport minister and the son of former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, died of COVID-19 on Sunday, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said, becoming the first incumbent lawmaker to succumb to the disease.