After nearly two years, COVID-19 remains mysterious. That’s largely because COVID case rates have fluctuated widely from country to country, with no obvious explanation. This week Austria, Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands are up dramatically. Japan, on the other hand, has seen case rates fall to historic lows. Is there any explanation for why COVID cases in Japan are dropping so dramatically?
The Japanese Roller Coaster:
Three months ago, Japan was averaging nearly 23,000 cases daily. At the peak on August 28, 2021, the country counted just under 30,000 COVID cases.
On Monday, there were 50 daily cases in Japan. That’s the lowest number of COVID cases in Japan since June of 2020. There was only one death on Monday. On that same day, the US reported over 1,200 deaths.
Tokyo has a population of 14 million. The city reported just 27 new COVID cases on Thursday.
By contrast, New York City has a population of around 9 million people. This week it’s averaging 1,400 new COVID cases daily. Los Angeles County has about 10 million people. It is reporting a daily average of more than 1,000 new cases.
Why Are COVID Cases Dropping so Dramatically in Japan?
What could account for the rapid reduction in COVID cases in Japan? Geneticists there have a hypothesis. They propose that the Delta variant out-competed all other variants of COVID-19. Then it mutated in a way that reduced its ability to replicate and evolve.
Professor Ituro Inoue, at the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, Japan, suggests that this new version of SARS-2 has become a faulty virus that can’t copy itself. He believes the coronavirus is on a road to self-destruction in Japan.
“The Delta variant in Japan was highly transmissible and keeping other variants out. But as the mutations piled up, we believe it eventually became a faulty virus and it was unable to make copies of itself. Considering that the cases haven’t been increasing, we think that at some point during such mutations it headed straight toward its natural extinction.”
This is a pretty radical concept, but it actually happened once before. Remember that Asia experienced a coronavirus outbreak in 2003. That SARS outbreak eventually disappeared all by itself, without a vaccine or other heroic measures.
A Competing Theory for Why COVID Cases in Japan Are Disappearing:
Other scientists attribute the rapid drop in Japanese COVID cases to a 76% vaccination rate. There is also a nearly universal use of face masks. Most people in Japan do not find it difficult or unduly unpleasant to wear face masks.
We find this explanation a bit too simplistic. That’s because there are other countries with high vaccination rates. In Singapore, 93% of the population is vaccinated. It’s 90% in Cuba, 89% in Portugal, 87% in Chile, 82% in South Korea and Spain.
People in South Korea and Singapore are also very good about wearing face masks, but Singapore is averaging about 2,000 cases daily. South Korea reported 4,000 daily cases on Tuesday. Spain is averaging over 6,000 cases a day.
“…Something Is Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is.
Do You, Mr. Jones?”
Those are the famous lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song Ballad of a Thin Man from the album Highway 61 Revisited.
It seems clear to us that something unique is happening in Japan. Is the disappearance of COVID cases in Japan permanent? Professor Inoue admits that a new COVID variant could arrive on the scene and change everything yet again. And he doubts that the Delta variant will disappear in other countries as suddenly as it has in Japan.
If, however, scientists could identify mutations that have led to the dramatic reduction of COVID cases in Japan, perhaps they could find a pathway to help us end the pandemic sooner. We would love to see the world’s best geneticists, virologists and epidemiologists travel to Japan to try and figure out what is happening there. Perhaps then they could devise a plan to start duplicating that success elsewhere in the world.