Japan plans targeted Covid-19 curbs as new cases fall but deaths hit record

There have been 2,446 deaths so far in February, already the second-deadliest month in the two-year pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) -  A Japanese health panel approved on Friday (Feb 18) a plan to bring in more targeted Covid-19 curbs across much of the nation, as overall new infections decline but fatalities rise to a record level.  

The government will let infection restrictions on mobility and commerce lapse on Sunday in five prefectures where the virus appears to have peaked out.

However, curbs will be extended until March 6 in another 17 regions where infection levels are still relatively high.  

"The priority going forward is to try to hold down serious cases and deaths among the elderly," Dr Shigeru Omi, Japan’s top health advisor, told reporters after the panel’s meeting, whose plan was expected to be officially approved later in the day.

New deaths rose to a record 271 on Thursday, a tally by national broadcaster NHK showed, exceeding 200 for the third straight day.

February’s 2,446 deaths make it the second-deadliest month in the two-year pandemic.  

A panel of health experts said this week that a surge of cases caused by the infectious Omicron variant appears to have peaked, but hospitalisations and deaths would likely continue, particularly among the elderly.   

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura estimated 4,339 deaths in the Omicron wave between January and April 20, with more than 70 per cent in their 80s or older, but added that booster doses of vaccine could help reduce that figure.  

The BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, found in several countries such as Britain and Denmark, poses a potentially higher risk to global health than the more common BA.1, researchers in Japan said in a pre-print study this week.  

It said BA.2 was more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity than BA.1, and more pathogenic in hamsters, though other studies have suggested similar severity.  

"We don’t see any difference in terms of severity between BA.2 and BA.1," Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, a technical lead for the World Health Organization told a briefing this week.  

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to accelerate Japan’s booster programme, which has covered just 12 per cent of the population. 

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