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Japan considers downgrading Covid-19 to the same level as seasonal flu

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Japan will consider downgrading Covid-19 to the same category as seasonal flu this spring, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on Friday.

Kishida said he had instructed Health Ministry officials to discuss the change and that his government would also review rules on face masks and other pandemic measures.

“To further advance efforts to ‘live with Corona’ and restore Japan to a state of normality, we will transition the various policies and measures to date in phases,” said Kishida.

Although daily cases of Covid-19 in Japan have declined in recent weeks, the country is still facing around 100,000 new infections a day.

Covid-19 is classified as a Class 2 disease, the same status as tuberculosis and avian flu, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health. Authorities will now discuss reclassification to Class 5 – the lowest classification, which includes seasonal flu.

Japan fully reopened its borders to foreign visitors last October after more than two years of pandemic restrictions, ending one of the strictest border controls in the world.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has asked the Ministry of Health to discuss downgrading the Covid-19 status.

Influenza – or common flu – and Covid-19 are contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms, but are caused by different viruses and require testing to confirm the diagnosis, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on its website .

According to the CDC, the risk of death or hospitalization from Covid-19 is greatly reduced for most people due to high levels of vaccination and population immunity to previous infections.

However, the World Health Organization still lists the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic and reiterated in its latest update a recommendation for people to wear masks after recent exposure or close contact with Covid-19 and for “anyone in an environment crowded, enclosed, or poorly ventilated space” to do the same.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week urged governments to continue sharing coronavirus sequencing data as it remains vital to detect and track the emergence and spread of new variants.

“It is understandable that countries cannot maintain the same levels of testing and sequencing they had during the Omicron peak. At the same time, the world cannot turn a blind eye and wait for this virus to go away. It won’t,” he said.

The news came as South Korea announced that it will suspend the use of masks in most indoor areas, with exceptions for public transport and health facilities. The changes will take effect on January 30, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Friday.

The measure will be lifted after the Lunar New Year holiday when large numbers of people are expected to travel, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

New Covid-19 cases, severe cases and related deaths are decreasing and the country’s medical response capacity remains stable, the KDCA added.

The agency strongly recommended that people wear masks if they have symptoms related to Covid-19, belong to a high-risk group, have recently been in contact with a positive case, or are in a crowded space.

Masks will still be required on public transport and in healthcare facilities after South Korea loosens its indoor mask mandate on January 30, 2023.

The prime minister said the easing of the mandate could result in a temporary increase in new cases and urged health authorities to remain vigilant.

South Korea lifted most of its pandemic restrictions and eased its outdoor mask mandate in May 2022. It still requires people who test positive to spend seven days in home isolation.

The country has also restricted travel from mainland China and implemented testing requirements for people arriving from China, Hong Kong and Macau following Beijing’s easing of Covid restrictions.