Study links Japan's domestic travel campaign to increased COVID-19 symptoms

FILE PHOTO: Electric sign boards displaying initiatives to preTemporary closed official goods shop for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games is seen at Narita international airport where fewer passengers than usual, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

(This Dec. 8 story has been refiled to add source of study in 5th paragraph)

TOKYO (Reuters) - Researchers in Japan found a higher incidence of COVID-19 symptoms among people who have participated in a domestic travel campaign promoted by the government, suggesting that it is contributing to a spread in the virus.

The findings will make dismal reading for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has defended the travel campaign, saying it was needed to stop many small businesses in the hospitality sector from going bust due to the lack of customers as a result of the virus scare.

High fever was reported by 4.8% of users of the Go To Travel campaign compared with 3.7% for non-users, according to a preprint of a study that examined data from an internet survey of more than 25,000 adults. Participants also had higher rates of throat pain, cough, headache, and a loss of the sense of taste or smell.

“The subsidy program may be incentivizing those who had higher risks of COVID-19 transmission to travel, leading to larger cases of infections,” according to the authors, who included researchers from the medical schools of the University of Tokyo and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

While the domestic tourism campaign began before Yoshihide Suga became prime minister following the resignation of Shinzo Abe due to ill-health in September, Suga has been seen a key backer of the initiative. Health experts had warned that encouraging domestic tourism risked spreading the infection from major cities to the countryside.

Japan is now suffering a third wave of COVID-19, with new cases reaching record levels in Tokyo and clusters that are straining the medical systems of Hokkaido in the north and Osaka in the west.

Even so, the nation has weathered the pandemic better than most major economies, with more than 165,000 cases and 2,417 fatalities.

Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore