Three days before the Olympics began, on July 20, Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) reported to an international organization that the highly infectious Lambda variant had been
detected in an airport test in Japan for the first time, but did not
announce it widely to the public.
The report was submitted to an international COVID-19 and other
influenza virus database known as GISAID. According to preliminary
reports from South American and Japanese scientists, the Lambda
variant may possess an increased resistance to vaccines. Although
scientific data on the variant is limited in comparison to prevalent
COVID-19 variants like Delta, its detection in the airport comes at a
time when infections in the country are skyrocketing. On Friday, the
total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Japan passed 1 million
and the arrival of Lambda can further complicate matters. For the
time being, there appears to have been only one confirmed case.
The Japanese government would not release details, but a researcher
at the NIID told The Daily Beast that the variant was found at an
airport check and not in the wild. The source said there was a plan
to announce the variant’s detection but not until after the
The NIID employee said new variant discoveries have previously been
announced within three days, if they are well-known variants, but it
can take up to 11 days. This year, on Jan. 2, four travelers from
Brazil tested positive for the coronavirus. After lab analysis, the
Ministry of Health determined that it was a new variant and made an announcement on Jan. 10, a Sunday. Typically, the Minister of Health
has a press conference when a major new variant is discovered in
Japan for the first time. In December, a Japanese woman who arrived
in Haneda Airport after visiting Britain was judged negative after an
airport screening. She later became ill and was tested on Dec. 19,
and found to be positive for the virus. After determining that it was
a British variant, the health ministry announced it eight days later,
on Dec. 27.
Government officials had not been willing to tell The Daily Beast
when the original Lambda variant test was carried out, but it is now
17 days since they told GISAID about the discovery.
After discovering the Lambda report on the GISAID website on
Wednesday, The Daily Beast approached the Ministry of Health, the
NIID, and publicly requested information. The ministry initially
stonewalled and then told us to wait for a call back with further
information on Friday before slipping out the announcement of the
case to the state broadcaster. NHK reported the news without
mentioning the long, unexplained delay.
Last month, a team of researchers at Tokyo University released a
report, not yet peer-reviewed, that found the Lambda variant was
highly infectious and displays detectable resistance to immunity
acquired by vaccines. In Peru, where the variant was first
discovered, more than 90 percent of infections are now traced to the
Lambda variant. The research team at Tokyo University believes the
variant “has potential to be a threat to human society.”
Japan’s NIID reported finding the Lambda variant to the GISAID
database on July 20. The database shared the first complete genome
sequence of SARS-Cov-2 in early January 2020 and there have been
nearly 2.5 million submissions logged since. Institutes submitting
data to the group must have their credentials confirmed and sign a
database access agreement.
The variant was confirmed by the SARS-CoV-2 testing team at NIID in
Tokyo and the data submitted by the Pathogen Genomics Center at the
same institute. Nozumu Hanaoka, a senior research scientist at the institute’s Center for Infectious Disease Risk Management, and
several other scientists signed off on the submission. According to GISAID’s Aug. 4 updated transmission tracking data, the variant is
believed to have been brought to Japan by an infected patient
traveling through the United States.
The woman in her 30s traveled from Peru to Japan’s Haneda
International Airport on July 20 where she tested positive for the
variant, according to sources close to the Health Ministry, who said
the NIID ran tests and confirmed it was the Lambda variant the same
There are reportedly no direct scheduled flights from Peru to Haneda
or Narita International Airport in Tokyo, with passengers usually
making two or more stops in the United States. Travellers from Peru
often route through Los Angeles International Airport, California,
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Washington, before making their final
departure to Tokyo.
The NIID has not yet responded to requests for further information
about the discovery of the variant. For example, was it brought to
Japan by a participant in the Olympics? Where was the carrier of the
An employee of the NIID who spoke to The Daily Beast on conditions of anonymity said, “I’m not authorized to speak on the record but to my knowledge the variant was detected at an airport checkpoint and has
not been in the wild [exposed to the general populace].” The employee
said that normally when a new variant is found, the information is promulgated quickly, but not this time. “There was a consensus at the Ministry of Health that this information would best be reported after
the Olympics were over. Whether that is because they felt that it
would be better to heighten public awareness when the news cycle
slows down or whether this is because it might tangentially be
associated with the Olympics, which is embarrassing—that I don’t
A representative from the Ministry of Health told The Daily Beast
that the Lambda variant has not “arrived” in Japan, as it was
detected and quarantined at an airport circa July 20. “This means the proper testing protocols work,” they said.
The representative elaborated that there is limited scientific
information on how contagious, how viral, and how responsive to
vaccines the Lambda variant is.
“We are always monitoring the spread and behavior of variants.
However, due to limited data, it is hard to say how dangerous the
Lambda variant is. For this same reason, it is difficult to compare
it to the Delta variant.”
Kei Sato, a virology researcher at the University of Tokyo, one of
the co-authors of the paper “SARS-CoV-2 Lambda variant exhibits
higher infectivity and immune resistance,” confirmed to The Daily
Beast that he was aware of a case of the Lambda variant being
reported in Japan, but said he was not privy to further details.
|Location:||Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK|
|Nodes:||8 (1 / 7)|