A station staff wearing a face mask makes an announcement through a microphone near the gate. Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures on Thursday. This marks the country’s second soft lockdown following the declaration of the first emergency in April 2020.
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LONDON – Japan’s National Institute for Infectious Diseases (NIID) announced on Sunday that it had discovered a new variant of the coronavirus in four travelers arriving from Brazil.
The newly discovered mutant strain of Covid-19 was found to share some of the mutations with those who fear increased infectivity, the institute said, referring to highly infectious strains recently discovered in the UK and South Africa.
Currently, however, all information about the new variant is limited to its genetic makeup, according to the NIID. The institute added that it was difficult to immediately determine how contagious the new strain is and how effective vaccines are against it.
The World Health Organization has been contacted by CNBC to confirm whether it has been informed of the new mutant strain of the virus. The United Nations Health Department was not immediately available for a response Monday morning.
Japan’s identification of a new variant of the virus comes when countries contain two more contagious variants that have emerged in the UK and South Africa. Public health experts have raised concerns that the new strains could pose a threat to vaccination efforts.
While the variants discovered in the UK and South Africa are spreading more easily, there is no clear evidence that the mutated viruses are associated with more severe disease outcomes. However, being more communicable means more people can become infected, and that could mean more serious infections and more deaths.
In recent weeks, optimism about the mass rollout of Covid vaccines appears to have been tempered by the resurgent rate of virus spread around the world.
What do we know about the new variant?
On January 6, Japan’s NIID discovered a new mutant strain of Covid in four passengers who arrived from the Brazilian state of Amazonas on January 2.
A man in his forties who was found to be asymptomatic when he arrived in Japan was hospitalized when his breathing got worse. A woman in her thirties reported a sore throat and headache, a man between 10 and 19 years of age had a fever, and a young woman over 10 was asymptomatic.
The variant of the virus discovered in Japan belongs to the strain B.1.1.248 and, according to NIID, has 12 mutations in the spike protein.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, studies are currently underway to determine the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines against the new variant, Reuters reported on Sunday, citing a ministerial official who was not named.
What about the tribes discovered in the UK and South Africa?
On December 14th, the UK health authorities reported a variant to the WHO identified as SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01. It is unclear how the new strain came about, but preliminary results have shown that the strain is highly transmissible.
It initially appeared in the southeast of England, but within a few weeks the variant of the virus had already started replacing other virus lines in some regions of the country.
A nurse is adjusting her PPE in the intensive care unit at St. George’s Hospital in Tooting, South West London, where the number of intensive care beds for the critically ill had to be increased from 60 to 120, the vast majority of them for coronavirus patients.
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Britain is struggling to contain the spread of the virus and already stressed health facilities are under increasing pressure across the country. As of December 30th, the variant VOC-202012/01 was reported in 31 other countries and areas worldwide.
Independently of this, the national authorities in South Africa announced the detection of the variant 501Y.V2 on December 18. The WHO said routine sequencing showed that this variant had largely replaced other SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces by mid-November.
Preliminary studies have shown that the 501Y.V2 variant also has increased transferability, but there is no clear evidence that it is associated with worse disease outcomes. It had been reported in four other countries by December 30th.
How is the situation in Japan?
Japan declared a state of emergency in the greater Tokyo area on Thursday after a record number of Covid cases were reported in the country’s capital.
A woman wearing a face mask walks under a series of gates at Hie Shrine in Tokyo on January 7, 2021.
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When announcing the new restrictions, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said: “The situation has become increasingly worrying across the country and we have a strong sense of crisis.” He added that the measures are necessary to combat an “increasingly worrying” third wave of infections.
To date, the country has recorded 290,270 cases of the coronavirus with 3,855 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
– CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.