Welcoming Japan’s Decision to Conduct Free COVID-19 PCR Tests for Those Without Symptoms [2021年12月14日（Tue）]
Just when the number of novel coronavirus cases in Japan had shown a sizeable decline, we are now starting to see cases of the new Omicron that was first reported in South Africa on November 24 and then designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) two days later.
Pledging to act quickly to keep out Omicron, believed to be the most contagious variant so far, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced his decision on November 29 to ban all incoming foreign travelers to the country for one month.
On the following day, however, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) confirmed the nation’s first case of the Omicron variant when a diplomat from Namibia, a southwestern African country, in his 30s was found to be infected with the highly mutated strain. The man, who was fully vaccinated, had no symptoms when he arrived at Narita International Airport east of Tokyo on November 28, but developed a fever the next day.
As of December 13, MHLW has detected a total of 17 cases of the Omicron variant, including two passengers on the same flight as the Namibian diplomat. They all arrived in Japan between late November and early December from countries including the United States, Mozambique, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in addition to Namibia.
Other passengers on the same flights as the infected individuals are being regarded as having had close contact with them and are required to quarantine at designated facilities for 14 days following their arrival.
WHO has warned the Omicron variant, which has been confirmed in many parts of the world now, could be more transmissible than the previous strains of the virus like the Delta variant and able to evade immunity provided by vaccines.
The Japanese government has bolstered the nation’s precautions to prepare for a possible sixth wave of COVID-19 prior to the festive season. I sincerely hope that Japan will succeed in preventing the Omicron variant from spreading in the country.
In this connection, the government has finally decided to set aside some 300 billion yen (about $2,640 million) in the proposed supplementary budget now before the Diet (Parliament) for administering free COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests targeting people with no symptoms and who are medically unable to receive the vaccine.
According to the October 2 issue of the Nikkei Shimbun, the number of COVID-19 PCR tests per 1,000 people in September this year came to about 40 in Australia, 15 in the United Kingdom and 10 in Singapore compared with only 0.8 in Japan.
From February 24 to November 30, The Nippon Foundation offered free and regular PCR tests to caregivers and other essential workers at nursing homes for the elderly in Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures. This was part of our campaign to help the government combat the pandemic. Under the project, a total of 3,113,641 tests were administered. Of the total, 386 persons tested positive.
As I noted in my previous posts on September 10 and October 29, the governments of Tokyo and the three other prefectures were not enthusiastic about encouraging caregivers to receive the free tests as this might have upset those who do business from testing.
So, I commend the government’s decision to finance the free PCR tests for those without symptoms as an important step forward in our fight against the pandemic. This is expected to go a long way in identifying positive COVID-19 cases with mild or no symptoms, thus preventing them from unknowingly transmitting the coronavirus to others.
Now that we have seen “breakthrough infections” hitting those who were fully vaccinated, I cannot agree more with Mr. Shunsuke Ushigome of the Nikkei when he saluted the countries that have introduced massive free COVID-19 testing combined with booster shots as a key to winning the fight against the coronavirus.