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Japan’s top COVID-19 adviser urges cautious pace in opening border

  • October 28, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 11:46 a.m.
  • English Press

AKANE OKUTSU, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — Japan’s leading COVID-19 adviser calls for a cautious approach in reopening the country’s border, despite the global trend to relax entry restrictions amid progress in vaccination coverage.

 

“There are still many countries in the world with many cases of infections,” Shigeru Omi, an immunologist who heads the government’s subcommittee on COVID-19 response, told Nikkei Asia in an interview Wednesday as he attended the two-day Nikkei FT Communicable Diseases Conference in Tokyo. “Other viruses come in if you suddenly loosen border control measures, so [we need to] watch carefully and [take steps] little by little.”

 

Japan has relatively strict border controls, blocking entry of most foreigners except for returning residents and others with special status, including spouses of Japanese nationals. The country still requires a 10-day quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers.

 

Though the delta variant already has spread in Japan, replacing other coronavirus strains, Omi cited the risk of new variants.

 

“It is very important to see whether various variants spreading worldwide could enter” the country by opening borders, he said.

 

Japan’s daily confirmed cases have fallen to 166 as of Tuesday from the peak of over 26,000 in August. But Omi said people should still take preventive measures such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds in areas with insufficient ventilation.

 

Though 70% of Japan’s population is now fully vaccinated, “we know that, even with high vaccination rates in other countries, infections have expanded rapidly, causing deaths,” he warned. COVID-19 cases could rise again during winter, Omi said.

 

More than half a year since the country rolled out vaccination programs, starting with medical workers in February, booster shots could be considered for high-risk individuals such as the elderly, Omi said. As the World Health Organization and others ask developed nations to restrict boosters in favor of prioritizing first doses in low-income countries, “Japan has been and should continue fulfilling its responsibilities in such places,” he said.

 

Preventing severe cases and deaths has always been central to Japan’s measures, Omi said. Protection layers — from vaccines and testing to treatment — are intended to reduce severe cases so that “even with some level of infections, health care supply systems would not be hit too much,” he said. Preventing pressure on medical services would enable “continuing social and economic activities.”

 

A combination of measures — including those protections, sufficient health care capacity and a swift response to any surge in infections — would “mean social and economic activities can resume gradually,” Omi said.

 

The use of negative test results and proof of vaccination would need to be implemented in ways “all citizens agree on,” he said.

 

Steps that need to be taken are clear, and Japan has plans to do so, Omi said. The government, under new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, should “execute the plan,” he said.

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