Photo/Illutration Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu holds an emergency news conference on Jan. 19 following reports of local residents becoming Japan’s first likely cases of community transmission of the novel coronavirus variant found in Britain. (Junichi Miyagawa)

The health ministry announced on Jan. 19 it will examine all samples taken from novel coronavirus patients in Shizuoka Prefecture, where three residents were Japan’s first likely cases of community transmission of the variant that emerged in Britain.

Shizuoka Prefecture the same day issued an emergency alert over a surge in infections, asking residents to refrain from chatting during meals and traveling across prefectural borders.

At an emergency news conference on Jan. 19, Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu indicated that the patients contracted the strain while dining out with travelers from other prefectures where infections are spiking.

“If the variant is as transmissible as the one hitting Britain, the number of new infections will surge, putting the health care system at risk (of collapsing),” Kawakatsu warned.

In Japan, about 40 cases of the more contagious coronavirus variant have been detected so far among arrivals from overseas at airport quarantine checks and people who had contact with such travelers.

The three residents of Shizuoka Prefecture became the first patients infected with the coronavirus variant to have no history of overseas travel or contact with travelers from abroad. This is raising fears that the variant may be spreading through community transmission.

However, health minister Norihisa Tamura called on residents not to panic, given that there have been no other reports of infections with the coronavirus variant in the prefecture.

“(The variant) is not spreading in Shizuoka,” he said at a news conference on Jan. 19.

Tamura also urged people to continue taking thorough precautions against the virus, including wearing face masks, washing hands and using hand sanitizer, saying such measures are also effective against the variant.

The variant had been detected in 57 countries as of Jan. 18, and community-acquired infections were confirmed in 20 countries, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Britain.

In Japan, the number of patients infected with the variant totaled 47 after the strain was detected in two asymptomatic patients on Jan. 19.

The two men, both in their 30s, arrived at Narita Airport on Jan. 10, one from Britain and the other from Ghana, and had been confirmed infected with the novel coronavirus at airport quarantine.

(This article was written by Shuichi Doi and Junichi Miyagawa.)