Japan plans targeted COVID curbs as new cases fall but deaths hit record

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TOKYO (Reuters) -A Japanese health panel approved on Friday a plan for more targeted COVID-19 curbs across much of the nation, as new infections decline but deaths rise to a record level.

The government will let limits on mobility and commerce lapse on Sunday in five prefectures where the virus appears to have peaked, but extend curbs until March 6 in 17 more areas where infections are still relatively high.

"The priority going forward is to try to hold down serious cases and deaths among the elderly," top health adviser Shigeru Omi told reporters after a meeting of the panel, whose plan was expected to be officially approved later in the day.

New deaths rose to a record 271 on Thursday, a tally by national broadcaster NHK showed, exceeding 200 for the third straight day. February's 2,446 deaths make it the second-deadliest month in the two-year pandemic.

A panel of health experts said this week that a surge of cases caused by the infectious Omicron variant appeared to have peaked, but hospital admissions and deaths were likely to continue, chiefly among the elderly.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura estimated 4,339 deaths in the Omicron wave between January and April 20, with more than 70% in their 80s or older, but added that booster doses of vaccine could help reduce that figure.

The BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, found in several countries such as Britain and Denmark, poses a potentially higher risk to global health than the more common BA.1, researchers in Japan said in a pre-print study https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.02.14.480335v1.full.pdf this week.

It said BA.2 was more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity than BA.1, and more pathogenic in hamsters, though other studies have suggested similar severity.

"We don't see any difference in terms of severity between BA.2 and BA.1," Maria Van Kerkhove, a technical lead for the World Health Organization told a briefing this week.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to accelerate Japan's booster programme, which has covered just 12% of the population.

(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Editing by Richard Pullin and Clarence Fernandez)

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