Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Japan's miraculous COVID turnaround

Remember the Summer Olympics? Japan seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster back in August, with COVID cases reaching record levels with no apparent end in sight. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ignored the advice of his health advisors in letting the Games go ahead at all. The Japanese vaccination rollout was widely considered to have been bungled calamitously, and vaccination rates lagged far below those of other developed countries. There were demonstrations in the street, and eventually Suga was forced to step down amid disastrous approval ratings. 

Fast forward just a few short months and we see a very different Japan. Suddenly, COVID infections have fallen to the lowest levels in over a year, vaccination rates are among the world's best, and most emergency measures have been lifted for the first time in months. Japan is now looking like a role model just as many other countries, particularly parts of Europe, are seeing their worst ever pandemic conditions.

So, what gives?

Well, those emergency measures are part of the story, particularly the widespread wearing of masks (which, in Japan, as in China, is a very normal thing to do during viral outbreaks like the flu), as are the high - and relatively recent - vaccination rates. 

But some health experts, including Prof. Ituro Inoue of Japan's National Institute of Genetics, say that even the mask-wearimg, social distancing, and vaccine coverage are not enough to explain such a precipitous decline in cases and hospitalizations, and argue that the Delta variant may have reached a point of "natural extinction" in the country, not seen elsewhere. The Delta variant became so successful in the country that it blocked all other variants. But then, for reasons still not clearly understood, it became faulty and was unable to make copies of itself. In this way, it could mutate itself out of existence in Japan (and conceivably in other countries too) as it turned down an "evolutionary dead-end".

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. This phenomenon is not well understood, and there is no guarantee that the same thing will happen elsewhere (particularly where there is a lot of international trade and traffic). In the meantime, wear your masks, avoid people in enclosed spaces wherever possible, get your vaccination (and your booster if available). Oh, and cross your fingers - it might just help.

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