US warns against Japan travel due to Covid-19 risk, sowing new doubt on Olympics

The US issued the travel advisory to Japan just two months before the Tokyo Games begin. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The United States said Americans should avoid travelling to Japan, with the country under a state of emergency over a widening Covid-19 outbreak that has sown doubts about Tokyo's plans to host the Olympics in less than two months.

The US State Department raised its travel advisory to level four on Monday (May 24), putting Japan in a category with a broad swathe of nations from Latin America to Europe that Americans are urged to avoid due to coronavirus concerns.

The action is a fresh blow to a country struggling to convince its own public and the international community that it is ready to host the Summer Olympics beginning on July 23, following their delay in 2020.

Japan's coronavirus cases are rising largely because it has been slow with its vaccine roll-out. Just over 3 per cent of the island nation's population has been inoculated, the lowest among the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker. That compares with more than 40 per cent in the US and in the UK.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this month extended a state of emergency that covers Tokyo and expanded it to two more regions hit by rising virus cases, in an attempt to stem infections ahead of the Olympics.

The latest Covid-19 wave has largely been driven by more infectious strains from abroad, adding to concerns about inviting thousands of overseas participants, including athletes and officials.

Initially, 600,000 fans from abroad had been projected to attend, but organisers ruled out that possibility in March.

Organisers are set to decide soon if even local spectators will be allowed to watch the competitions in person. They already have reduced the number of officials and others expected to attend from overseas to about 78,000, not including athletes.

Some foreign athletes have expressed safety concerns, with the US track and field team cancelling pre-Olympics training in the country.

Japan began its immunisation effort with healthcare workers after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved in February. Progress has since been hindered by a conservative medical culture, with local safety trials required before vaccines could be approved and only doctors and nurses allowed to administer shots.

A law giving responsibility for inoculations to local municipalities and the testing of a new online reservation system have added to delays.

Japan last week finally approved vaccines developed by Moderna and AstraZeneca, and the pace of inoculation has picked up to almost 500,000 doses administered daily. That is still behind the one million goal set by Mr Suga.

The Japanese Consulate General in New York did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the US move.

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