Delta COVID variant surges in Asia, casts shadow on Olympics

Masked Thai air travelers

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Indonesia's daily COVID-19 cases jumped to a new record level today, with Thailand and South Korea also reporting record highs. Rising virus activity has also forced Japanese officials to order a state of emergency for the Tokyo area and a spectator ban for Olympic events.

Meanwhile, the world's death total from the virus topped 4 million today, with just over one-third of all fatalities from three countries: the United States, Brazil, and India. Global cases topped 185 million, rising to 185,350,264, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Record cases in Indonesia, Thailand, Korea

Indonesia today reported a record 38,391 cases, up sharply from 34,379 reported the day before, according to Reuters. The world's fourth most populous country is in the grips of a rapidly growing surge fueled by the Delta (B1617.2) variant, overwhelming many health systems and putting pressure on the country's oxygen supply.

Project Hope, a nonprofit health organization that is supporting 25 hospitals across Indonesia, today warned that the country's COVID situation could trigger an urgent call for emergency humanitarian assistance.

In a statement, Edhie Rahmat, MSc, the group's executive director for Indonesia, said the peak of the second wave hasn't been reached yet and that hospitals in many areas have exceeded capacity and have built tents to care for patients. "Both hospitals and those sick patients outside the hospitals who are self-quarantining are queuing for oxygen, but it’s very difficult to get even a single small tank. If they can find oxygen, the price is 3 to 4 times higher than normal prices," he said.

Central and local governments have imposed social restrictions until Jul 20, but they might not be enough to prevent a worsening surge, Rahmat added.

Elsewhere in Asia, Thailand reported another daily record high of more than 7,000 new cases, according to the Bangkok Post. Bangkok is one of the main hot spots, where officials are tracking 121 clusters. Officials said the country is experiencing its third wave, which began in April and is being driven by SARS-CoV-2 variants. Federal officials are considering new travel restrictions and tighten measures for Thailand's high-risk areas, according to Reuters.

South Korea also reported a single-day high for cases—1,275—which the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency says has now passed the peak of December's third wave, according to Reuters.

About 80% of the most recent cases were reported from the area around Seoul, and health officials are considering the next level of restrictions, which would amount to a semi-lockdown limiting gatherings and encouraging people to stay home as much as possible.

New restrictions for Olympics

Today Japan announced a state of emergency for Tokyo, which comes just 2 weeks before the Olympic games begin, according to Reuters. It begins on Jul 12 and runs through Aug 22. Also, Olympic officials announced that competition would take place without spectators, even domestic ones. Japan had earlier barred international spectators from attending the games.

The country's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the steps are needed to prevent Tokyo from fueling the further spread of the Delta variant. Most of Japan's population is still not vaccinated—about 25% of the population has received one dose.

In a related development, researchers based in Japan predicted that the Delta variant will become dominant in the country before the Olympics begin on Jul 23. In a Eurosurveillance article today, they warned that the substantial number of international visitors during the games could result in more exposures and accelerate the spread of the more transmissible variant to other parts of the world.

They said COVID measures that helped drive cases in Japan's earlier waves might not be enough to swiftly curb the latest surge. And with two-dose coverage at only 10.4%, they urged health officials to rapidly scale up immunization efforts.

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