TOKYO: Japanese doctors have detected a fast-spreading coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain in three people who had not travelled there, the health ministry said on Monday (Jan 18), the first such cases in Japan.
The three, aged from their 20s to their 60s and living in Shizuoka prefecture, about 200km west of Tokyo, first had symptoms in early January, the ministry said.
A health ministry official said that the authorities are looking into how the three became infected but that there was no proof yet that the variant first detected in Britain was spreading in Shizuoka now.
"Based on the fact the variant was detected from the people with no travel history (to the UK), we can assume they were infected in Japan," Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters.
Japan has so far detected 45 cases of new variants of the virus that were first spotted in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, he said.
Japan earlier this month expanded a state of emergency declared in the Tokyo area to seven more prefectures to curb COVID-19 cases.
The country has recorded about 335,000 cases of infection so far, including 4,500 deaths, public broadcaster NHK said.
The government has secured sufficient vaccine doses for all its 126 million residents, but so far only Pfizer has applied for approval and the jabs are not expected to start until late February.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged on Monday to tackle surging coronavirus cases and restore normal life "as soon as possible" as polls showed plunging support for his government.
Suga, who was speaking at the opening of a new parliament session, has only been in office since September, but has seen approval ratings nosedive over his government's handling of a third wave of infections.
The latest wave in Japan and abroad has also cast doubt on whether the pandemic-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics can go ahead this year, but Suga repeated he was still committed to holding the Games as "proof of mankind's victory over the virus".
"To protect the lives and health of the Japanese people... I will get the situation back to normal as soon as possible," Suga said in a policy address to the Diet as it opened for a 150-day session.