Japan reports new COVID-19 variant that ‘may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines’

japan covid-19 variant
Photo via Romain Guy/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

Yet another coronavirus variant has emerged onto the world stage, found in Japan, and it includes a mutation on the spike protein of the virus that may render the current fleet of COVID-19 vaccines less effective. 

Reuters reported that the new variant has been found in 91 cases in the Kanto area of eastern Japan, as well as two cases in airports, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.

“It may be more contagious than conventional strains, and if it continues to spread domestically, it could lead to a rapid rise in cases,” Kato said.

It’s believed the strain didn’t originate in Japan, and it is different from other types that have been found sporadically in that country, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. The E484K mutation on the spike protein of the virus, present in other known variants of coronavirus, is concerning according to the Reuters report, as it “may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.” 

The Washington Post noted, in its reporting on the new variant, that the Philippines Department of Health also announced it had detected two mutations “of potential clinical significance” on Feb. 18, including one with the E484K variation.

Japan, before the variant was known, has had more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 and 7,194 fatalities. The nation is experiencing its third wave of coronavirus infections, and it began a nationwide vaccination program earlier this week. That launch came in anticipation of Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympic Games initially slated for last summer. 

The AP noted that Japan’s vaccination efforts, launched Feb. 17, came “months after other major economies started giving shots and amid questions about whether the drive would reach enough people quickly enough to save a Summer Olympics already delayed by the pandemic.” 

The article noted that Japan’s relative delay came, in part, “because it asked vaccine maker Pfizer to conduct clinical trials with Japanese people, in addition to tests already conducted in six other nations—part of an effort to address worries in a country with low vaccine confidence.” 

Some health experts are concerned that the late start will make it impossible to Japan’s 127 million people to achieve herd immunity prior to the new, targeted Olympics dates of July 23-Aug. 8. 

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Sources: Reuters, Washington Post, Associated Press

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