DANILE LEUSSINK and CHANG-RAN KIM
A member of the Ugandan Olympic team who tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival in Japan had the Delta variant, Japan’s Olympics minister said yesterday, adding to concern the Games – less than a month away – may trigger a new wave of infections.
A coach in the East African nation’s delegation tested positive after arriving in Japan on Saturday, while a second member, an athlete, tested positive on Wednesday after arriving in the team’s host city of Izumisano, officials said previously.
Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa told a news conference that the person who arrived on Saturday had been found to have the highly infectious Delta variant and that analysis was also being conducted on the second confirmed case, NHK public TV reported.
Marukawa said she would consult other ministries and liaise with those on the ground about what steps were needed, NHK said.
The handling of the case has sparked criticism from local officials and experts, and fuelled concerns about what lies ahead.
Although one member tested positive for the virus at the airport, the rest travelled to the host town in a bus, accompanied by three city officials, an Izumisano official said. Those people were only designated “close contacts” days later.
Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters that Olympics delegations should be held at or near the airport if a member tested positive upon arrival. Izumisano city is in Osaka prefecture.
“It would be tough to apply this to the general public but with athletes’ groups it’s clear” they are close contacts, he said. “I think we should learn from this case as we head into the Games in earnest.”
The case “clearly shows a lack of basic risk mitigation measures based on best available evidence,” said Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College London.
Japan has not suffered the explosive outbreak of the virus seen elsewhere but has only recently emerged from a fourth wave of infections.
PUBLIC STILL SCEPTICAL
A decline in the pace of new cases and a pick-up in the vaccination rollout prompted authorities to ease a state of emergency in Tokyo and eight other prefectures on Sunday.
But experts are worried about a renewed rise in cases in Tokyo as well as about the spread of more highly transmissible variants. Tokyo recorded 570 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, up from 452 the same day a week earlier.
Japan’s government and organisers have vowed to make the Games, which begin on July 23, “safe and secure”. But many Japanese remain sceptical about the possibility of holding even a scaled-down Games safely during the pandemic.
Organisers have excluded foreign spectators and limited the number of domestic ones for the event. Alcohol, high-fives and talking loudly will be banned at stadiums.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, the government’s pointperson on the pandemic response, said authorities needed to keep the Delta variant in mind, given the experience in the United States and Britain, where it spread rapidly. The variant, first detected in India, accounted for 3% of new cases in Japan, he said.
“Considering that the Delta variant will spread … it is important to continue strong measures,” he told reporters.
Nishimura said stronger steps would be taken if infections spread to a “certain degree” or hospitals were strained, but a fresh state of emergency would not be immediately imposed.
Some areas including Tokyo remain under “quasi-emergency” restrictions, including limits on the sale of alcohol at eateries. A ban might need to be reimposed, Nishimura said.