Japan’s Plummeting COVID-19 Cases Create Mysterious Success Story

The bars are packed, the trains are crowded, and the mood is celebratory, amid uncertainty over what's behind the drop

Japan’s Plummeting COVID-19 Cases Create Mysterious Success Story

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

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

The bars are packed, the trains are crowded, and the mood is celebratory, despite a general bafflement over what, exactly, is behind the sharp drop.

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

Some possible factors in Japan’s success include a belated but remarkably rapid vaccination campaign, an emptying out of many nightlife areas as fears spread during the recent surge in cases, a widespread practice, well before the pandemic, of wearing masks and bad weather in late August that kept people home.
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But with vaccine efficacy gradually waning and winter approaching, experts worry that without knowing what exactly why cases have dropped so drastically, Japan could face another wave like this summer, when hospitals overflowed with serious cases and deaths soared — though the numbers were lower than pre-vaccination levels.

Many credit the vaccination campaign, especially among younger people, for bringing infections down. Nearly 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

“Rapid and intensive vaccinations in Japan among those younger than 64 might have created a temporary condition similar to herd-immunity,” said Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda, a Toho University professor of virology.

Tateda noted that vaccination rates surged in July to September, just as the more infectious delta variant was spreading fast.

He cautioned, however, that breakthrough infections in the U.S., Britain and other places where inoculations began months earlier than in Japan show that vaccines alone are not perfect and efficacy gradually wears off.

Japan’s vaccinations started in mid-February, with health workers and the elderly first in line. Shortages of imported vaccines kept progress slow until late May, when the supply stabilized and daily inoculation targets were raised to above 1 million doses to maximize protection before the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics.

The number of daily shots rose to about 1.5 million in July, pushing vaccination rates from 15% in early July to 65% by early October, exceeding the 57% of the United States.

Daily new cases surged just weeks ahead of the Olympics, forcing Japan to hold the Games with daily caseloads of more than 5,000 in Tokyo and around 20,000 nationwide in early August. Tokyo reported 40 cases Sunday, below 100 for the ninth straight day and lowest this year. Nationwide, Japan reported 429 cases Sunday for an accumulated total of about 1.71 million and 18,000 deaths since the pandemic began early last year.

So why the drop?

“It’s a tough question, and we have to consider the effect of the vaccinations progress, which is extremely big,” said Disease Control and Prevention Center Director Norio Ohmagari. “At the same time, people who gather in high-risk environments, such as crowded and less-ventilated places, may have been already infected and acquired natural immunity by now.”

Though some speculated that the drop in cases might be due to less testing, Tokyo metropolitan government data showed the positivity rate fell from 25% in late August to 1% in mid-October, while the number of tests fell by one-third. Masataka Inokuchi, the Tokyo Medical Association deputy chief, said falling positivity rates show infections have slowed.

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

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

To speed up inoculations, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who left office recently, expanded the number of health workers legally eligible to give shots, opened large-scale vaccination centers and promoted workplace vaccinations beginning in late June.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura told a recent government advisory board meeting that he estimates vaccinations helped some 650,000 people avoid infection and saved more than 7,200 lives between March and September.

Many experts initially blamed younger people, seen drinking on the streets and in parks when the bars were closed, for spreading the virus, but said data showed many in their 40s and 50s also frequented nightlife districts. Most serious cases and deaths were among unvaccinated people in their 50s or younger.

Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters recently he is worried people have already resumed partying in nightlife districts, noting that the slowing of infections may have already hit bottom.

“Looking ahead, it is important to further push down the caseloads in case of a future resurgence of infections,” Wakita said Thursday.

On Friday, new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said a preparedness plan to be compiled by early November would include tougher limits on activities and require hospitals to provide more beds and staff for COVID-19 treatment in case infections soar in a “worst-case scenario.”

He did not elaborate on details.

Many people are cautious about letting down their guard, regardless of the numbers.

Mask-wearing “has become so normal,” said university student Mizuki Kawano. “I’m still worried about the virus,” she said.

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

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

An analysis of GPS data showed that people’s movements in major downtown entertainment districts fell during the most recent, third state of emergency, which ended Sept. 30.

“I believe the decrease of people visiting entertainment districts, along with the vaccination progress, has contributed to the decline of infections,” said Atsushi Nishida, the director of the Research Center for Social Science & Medicine Sciences at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science.

But people headed back to entertainment districts as soon as the recent emergency ended, he said, and that may “affect the infection situation in coming weeks.”

AP journalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.

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What Colin Powell’s COVID-19 Death Says About the Current State of the Pandemic

It's not just a 'pandemic of the vaccinated'

What Colin Powell’s COVID-19 Death Says About the Current State of the Pandemic
Colin Powell, an 84-year-old former four-star general who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and is perhaps best known for his role in bringing the U.S. into its second war in Iraq, is a high-profile reminder of a grim reality: COVID-19 is not just a pandemic of the unvaccinated, as current president Joe Biden likes to say, but a pandemic of the elderly, too.

From early on in the pandemic, we’ve known the virus disproportionately kills older people, and the overall data make that pretty clear: About 543,200 people 65 or older have died with COVID-19 in the U.S. so far, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or about 76.2% of the country’s total death toll, despite making up just 16.5% of the pre-pandemic population.
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When vaccinations began to roll out in the beginning of this year, it became evident almost immediately that people who received a full course of a vaccine—including the elderly—were less likely to become gravely ill from COVID-19. Before the Delta variant took hold in the summer, those 65 and over who had been fully vaccinated were hospitalized at a rate of less than 5 people per 100,000 on average, compared to about 40 per 100,000 among their unvaccinated peers.

Read more: Colin Powell and the transformative power of owning your mistakes

As the Delta variant became widespread, that disparity widened. In late August (the most recent month for which CDC data is available), when Delta cases were surging across the country and the FDA hadn’t yet authorized booster shots, the oldest vaccinated Americans were being hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate of only 15 people per 100,000. For their unvaccinated peers, on the other hand, the rate had surged to more than 200.

Nevertheless, it remains a reality that the elderly—even those who are vaccinated—are at risk for serious COVID-19. Indeed, vaccinated people 80 and above have died at significantly higher rates than even some unvaccinated younger people, per the CDC (though, of course, they still fare remarkably better than their unvaccinated peers). In part, this is likely because older people are more likely to have conditions that make them more susceptible to infection, or that blunt vaccinations’ impact. Powell, for instance, was fully vaccinated, but also had multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that weakens the immune system.

It’s these factors that led a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel to authorize Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters specifically for Americans 65 and up (plus younger folks at higher risk for health or occupational reasons) in recent weeks. Another dose, the thinking goes, should help better protect our most vulnerable neighbors. A promising Israeli study published last month showed that people over 60 who got a Pfizer booster were nearly 20 times less likely to develop severe disease, data that in part informed the FDA panel’s decision. Even if cases keep falling, the relative risk facing older people will remain fairly high, in part because falling cases will lead more people to engage in riskier behaviors, potentially leading them to spread the virus to elderly loved ones—Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are just around the corner, and were major drivers of spread last year.

The key now is convincing vaccinated older Americans to get their booster shot, and getting those who remain unvaccinated to get their first doses. The former should be far easier—older Americans are vaccinated at much higher rates compared to younger groups, perhaps in part because they generally have more to fear from the virus, and those who got their shots once or twice will likely be willing to get another. Convincing the latter will be a steep climb; what’s left to say to those who remain unprotected despite facing the greatest risk? That Powell died of a breakthrough infection is already fueling the anti-vaccine fire, as people incorrectly cite his death as evidence of the vaccines’ imperfection, even though it’s really just more evidence that a more fully vaccinated population and boosters are both urgently needed.

This story was adapted from The Coronavirus Brief, TIME’s daily COVID-19 newsletter. Sign up here.

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