TOKYO — Almost overnight, Japan has become a surprising, and somewhat mysterious, coronavirus success story.

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Daily new COVID-19 cases have fallen from a mid-August peak of nearly 6,000 in Tokyo, with caseloads in the densely populated capital now regularly below 100, an 11-month low.

Bars are packed, trains are crowded, and the mood is festive, despite the general confusion over what’s behind this sharp drop.


Japan, unlike other places in Europe and Asia, has never been anything close to a lockdown, only a series of relatively toothless states of emergency.

Some of the likely factors in Japan’s success include a late but remarkably rapid vaccination campaign, the evacuation of many nightlife areas, fears spread during the recent surge in cases, a widespread practice, prior to the pandemic, and wearing of masks in late August. Including bad weather. Who kept people at home.

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But with vaccine effectiveness slowly waning and winter is approaching, experts worry that without knowing exactly why cases have dropped so drastically, Japan may be facing another wave like this summer. , when hospitals were flooded with severe cases and deaths increased – although the numbers were lower than pre-vaccination levels.

Many attribute the vaccination campaign to reducing infections, especially among young people. About 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda, professor of virology at Toho University, said, “Rapid and intensive vaccination in people under the age of 64 in Japan may have created a temporary condition similar to herd-immunity.”

Tateda said vaccination rates increased from July to September, as if the more infectious Delta variant was spreading rapidly.

However, he cautioned that vaccinations began months earlier in the US, UK and elsewhere than in Japan, indicating that vaccines alone are not perfect and that efficacy gradually declines.

Vaccination in Japan began in mid-February, with health workers and the elderly first in line. A shortage of imported vaccines slowed progress until the end of May, when supplies stabilized and the daily vaccination target was raised above 1 million doses to maximize protection before July 23-August. 8 Olympics.

The number of daily shots rose to nearly 1.5 million in July, with the vaccination rate rising from 15% in early July to 65% in early October, more than the United States’ 57%.

Daily new cases spiked just weeks before the Olympics, forcing Japan to hold a daily caseload of more than 5,000 in Tokyo and nearly 20,000 nationwide in early August. Tokyo reported 40 cases on Sunday, down 100 for the ninth day in a row and the lowest this year. Nationwide, Japan reported 429 cases on Sunday, for a total of 1.71 million and 18,000 deaths since the pandemic began early last year.

So why the decline?

“It’s a tough question, and we have to consider the impact of vaccination progress, which is huge,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “At the same time, people who gather in high-risk environments, such as crowded and poorly ventilated places, may have already been infected and acquired natural immunity by now.”

Although some speculated that the drop in cases may be due to less testing, data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government shows that the positivity rate fell from 25% in late August to 1% in mid-October, while the number of tests The numbers dropped by a third. Masataka Inokuchi, deputy head of the Tokyo Medical Association, said the falling positivity rate showed that infections had slowed.

Japan’s state of emergency measures were not lockdowns, but requests that focused mainly on bars and eateries asked to close early and not to serve alcohol. Many continued to commute in overcrowded trains, and some attended sports and cultural events in stadiums with social distancing in place.

Emergency requests have ended and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activities, while allowing athletic events and package tours on a trial basis using vaccination certificates and increased testing.

To accelerate vaccination, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who recently stepped down, expanded the number of health workers legally qualified to give shots, opened mass vaccination centers and began in late June. Promoted workplace vaccinations.

Professor Hiroshi Nishiura of Kyoto University told a recent government advisory board meeting that he estimates the vaccination helped avoid infection by about 650,000 people and saved more than 7,200 lives between March and September.

Many experts initially blamed young people, drinking on the streets and in parks when bars were closed, for spreading the virus, but said many people in their 40s and 50s showed up frequently in nightlife districts as well. Most of the severe cases and deaths were in unvaccinated people 50 years of age or younger.

Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters recently that he is concerned that people have already started partying in nightlife districts, noting that the slowing rate of infections has already come down.

“Looking ahead, it is important to push the caseload further down in case there is a resurgence of infections in the future,” Vakita said on Thursday.

On Friday, new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said a preparedness plan to be prepared by early November would include strict limits on activities and COVID-19 treatment in case of infection to hospitals in a “worst-case scenario”. Will need to provide more beds and staff. “

He did not elaborate on the details.

Regardless of the numbers, many people are cautious about letting their guard down.

“Wearing a mask” has become so common, said university student Mizuki Kawano. “I’m still worried about the virus,” she said.

“I don’t want to get close to people who don’t wear masks,” said her friend Alice Kawaguchi.

Public health experts want a comprehensive investigation into why infections have decreased.

An analysis of GPS data showed that the movement of people in major downtown entertainment districts fell during the most recent, third emergency, which ended on September 30.

Atsushi Nishida, director of the Research Center for Social Science and Medicine Sciences at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, said, “I believe that vaccination progress, as well as the lack of people coming to entertainment districts, has contributed to the decline in infections. contributed to.” .

But people recently went back to entertainment districts as soon as the emergency ended, he said, and that “could affect the state of infection in the coming weeks.”


AP journalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.