TOKYO—The first case of the deadly Lambda variant of the coronavirus identified in Japan—and then kept under wraps—was a woman who had come to the country to work at the Tokyo Olympics, The Daily Beast has confirmed.
She arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on July 20, with an Olympic Accreditation Card, according to several sources. Although she was positively identified as carrying the Lambda variant on July 23—the same day the Olympics opened—the Ministry of Health did not announce that finding until Aug. 6, after reporters from The Daily Beast first broke the story. This most recent news of the patient’s identity has caused an uproar in Japan, where many speculate the government sat on the findings to ensure that the games, which were opposed by over 60 percent of the public, went on as planned.
Earlier this week, a representative of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) apologized on a television news program for the government’s failure to promptly announce the findings—and offered a remarkable excuse: “We would’ve said something if the media had asked us earlier.”
Friday marked the first time since the pandemic began that Japan had over 20,000 new cases of the coronavirus in a single day, with Tokyo setting a new record by exceeding 5,770 in a day. Before, during, and after the Olympics, experts expressed concerns that the games would worsen Japan’s pandemic, and possibly introduce newer and more infectious variants into the country. The lack of disclosure by the government so far has made people worried that the worst may have already happened.
What We Know
The woman in her thirties, who is Japan’s first known case of the Lambda variant to enter the country, arrived at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo on July 20. At the quarantine checkpoint, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was isolated. Before coming to Japan, she was living in Peru, where the variant, feared to be more contagious and more resistant to vaccines than other strains, was first detected. Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) suspected, correctly, that she might have the Lambda variant—which at the time accounted for 80 percent of new cases in Peru. They confirmed their suspicions after analysis on July 23, the day the Olympics opened.
It was a bad omen of things to come.
The NIID submitted a report to the Ministry of Health the same day researchers made their determination. The viral RNA of the variant was completely sequenced and released to an international influenza and virus database, GISAID, on July 26. A GISAID representative wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that it was “a very fast turnaround time by Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.”
The Ministry of Health had no plans to announce the findings during the Olympics but has claimed that it was not a cover-up, insisting the Lambda variant did not meet internal criteria for a public announcement. An employee working for the NIID told The Daily Beast, on the condition of anonymity, that there should have been an announcement after identification, due to the seriousness of the Lambda variant.
“I can only speculate on why the ministry decided to say nothing. I’m a scientist not a bureaucrat. But in light of what we know now, it seems even more likely that the Olympics were a factor,” the individual said.
The brewing scandal over the failure to inform the public about the discovery of the variant has put Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the defensive. The prioritization of the Olympics over public safety is seen by many as a factor in the current COVID-19 explosion. While the Olympics were certainly not the cause of the blaze, they undeniably fueled the fire, sending out the message that the surge of infections was not of great concern.
The opening day ceremonies, which had no regular spectators, also may have turned into a super-spreader event, as thousands gathered outside the Olympic stadium to watch the fireworks, hear the music, and enjoy the visual displays.
On Aug. 12, a high-ranking member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Masahisa Sato, appeared on Japan’s TBS feature news program Houdou 1930 to speak on the government’s response to the Lambda variant. “We should have released the information early on, however, information was not properly shared within the government. [The reason the Ministry of Health released information on the Lambda variant on Aug. 6] was because of questions from the press,” Sato said regarding the time gap between knowing the Lambda variant had been found in the country and the release of that information to the public.
When asked whether the Lambda case was not disclosed due to the Olympics, Sato did not directly answer the question—and instead threw the Ministry of Health under the bus. “I get the feeling if the NIID had been asked questions earlier, they’d have answered quickly. There wasn’t a great awareness of the Lambda variant. But if it was spotted at the airport quarantine, they should have announced it. All of us connected to the Cabinet Secretariat share the same opinion,” he said.
Sato also pointed out that the variant had not yet been found in the wild, adding, “The NIID has now designated Lambda as a variant to be watched.”
The Lambda variant is designated as a “Variant of Interest” by Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease, as opposed to a “Variant of Concern,” like the Delta virus. With a viral load nearly 1,000 times higher than the original strain of COVID-19, it can also infect vaccinated individuals. The VOI category is assigned to variants of COVID-19 that have features that may increase the transmissibility and the severity of the disease.
Professor Tetsuya Matsumoto from the International University of Health and Welfare in the Department of Public Health, appeared on the program with Sato, as a medical expert. He stated, “The Lambda variant has already begun spreading from its central hub in South America. Such a variant entering Japan should have been promptly reported, and as the number of Delta cases continue to rise, Lambda is the next thing that ought to be prepared for. As it [the initial discovery] was around the time of the Olympics, you can’t blame anyone for thinking there wasn’t some motive to not disclose the information sooner.”
After the bubble has burst
The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to be conducted in a “safety bubble” to ensure that cross-contamination between athletes, volunteers, IOC members, and the general public wouldn’t take place. In reality, that bubble was as thin as a Made-in-Japan Sagami condom, but without the same level of sturdiness. The Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee has on a regular basis announced the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the games, but with a minimal amount of detail. So far, they have disclosed 553 known cases, but they have not specified the nationality of the individuals, nor what type of coronavirus they were infected with. It is not even clear if positive cases were analyzed to see what variant had infected the individuals. The Organizing Committee did not respond to a request for clarification as to whether the woman from Peru was actually included in the 553 announced cases.
Doctors had warned about the COVID-19 risks associated with the Tokyo Olympics months before the first games were played. Dr. Naoto Ueyama, chair of Japan Doctors Union, said in a late-May press conference to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan that the tournament could distribute existing variants and behave as a petri dish for new, potentially more fatal mutations.
“And if that were to happen, the number of victims indeed would be on a number even unthinkable in a conventional war,” Ueyama said.
Japan is currently struggling in the relentless grip of its fifth and largest wave of COVID-19 infections. A record breaking 20,365 new cases were reported nationally on Aug. 13. Tokyo had over 5,700 cases. Hospitals are being forced to discharge patients early to treat as many people as possible. Over 10,000 people are self-medicating at home waiting for a hospital bed and some have already died. The International Olympic Committee, Prime Minister Suga, and Tamayo Marukawa, the Olympic Minister, have denied any link between the Olympics and Japan’s coronavirus surge.