A month before the Olympics, how is Japan faring with COVID?


With a month to go until the Tokyo Olympics and a state of emergency freshly lifted in most of the country, Japan is seeing relatively low coronavirus case counts after a surge last month. But the country’s low vaccination rate, especially compared with other rich countries, and variants on the rise there have prompted some public health experts in recent weeks to express concerns about the games or call for them to be canceled.

As athletes and coaches from almost every country in the world prepare to descend on Japan, where tens of thousands of residents will work at or attend the games, just 7% of the country’s residents are fully vaccinated, compared with around a quarter of the population or more in most other rich countries. About 18% have received at least one shot, ranking Japan’s vaccination rate among the lowest of its peers and leaving the population vulnerable at a time when the Delta variant is on the rise and predicted to become dominant.

As cases surged toward a new peak in April and more-contagious variants began to take hold, the Japanese government declared a third state of emergency for Tokyo and other areas, eventually totaling 10 prefectures. This weekend, as cases continued to fall, Japan ended the emergency measures in most prefectures but will maintain some targeted restrictions in Tokyo and elsewhere. The states of emergency weren’t as strict as the total lockdowns seen in some other countries but meant restaurants were asked to shorten their hours, some shopping malls and movie theaters were asked to close and establishments were banned from selling alcohol.

Japan has managed to keep cases relatively low throughout the pandemic compared with other rich countries, though variants have made recent outbreaks harder to control. Even then, Japan’s peak in reported cases in May was comparatively low when adjusted for its population of 128 million, although Japan tested at a much lower rate than other countries. At its peak, Japan was reporting nearly 6,500 new coronavirus cases a day, on average, or about five new reported cases per day per 100,000 people. The United States, by contrast, reported more than 76 new cases per day per 100,000 at its worst point in January.

So far, about 1 in every 161 people in Japan has tested positive for the virus. In the United States, for instance, that figure is about 1 in 10. Japan’s relatively low case count through the pandemic suggests the country’s level of natural immunity is also much lower than many other countries in the world.

Japan, like a few other countries that have fared relatively well throughout the pandemic, has had among the slowest vaccine rollouts of rich countries. One reason for the lagging start is that the country requires its own domestic vaccine trials, so Japan only authorized its first vaccine, the Pfizer shot, more than two months after the United Kingdom and United States had done so.

Experts also say the government failed to negotiate contracts that would have led to early vaccine doses, perhaps because its earlier success containing the virus led to a diminished sense of urgency around vaccines.

But with the Olympics on the horizon and pressure mounting — a poll in May found more than 80% of Japanese people surveyed did not want their home country to host the games this summer — the Japanese vaccine campaign has sped up in recent weeks. After administering fewer than 100,000 doses a day in April, on average, Japan is now administering nearly 1 million shots per day.

After having used just Pfizer for the first months of the vaccine campaign, the government authorized two additional vaccines, Moderna and AstraZeneca, in late May. Of the two, only Moderna has been used so far within the country. And on June 17, all Japanese adults became eligible to receive a first vaccine shot at state-run sites. Until then, only those 65 and older could get vaccinated.

In light of the accelerating vaccine rollout and declining coronavirus caseload, organizers of the Tokyo Olympics have decided to allow domestic spectators to attend the games, with a cap of up to 10,000 fans per venue. Still, the public is not convinced: A poll over the weekend showed that 86% of those surveyed worry that there will be a rebound in cases once the Olympics are staged.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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