Is Omicron milder than Delta?

Early in the Omicron wave in South Africa some local doctors were commenting that they were seeing many “mild” cases of Omicron, quite different from what they had seen with Delta in the previous wave in the country.

Soon there were two competing takes on Omicron in the public discourse, one that concludes that Omicron is more like a bad cold and another that the true virulence of Omicron, even if it was somewhat lower, would matter less than the larger number of cases from its rapid spread. “A small percentage of a very large number can also be a large number,” is how many of the experts cautioned us.

The picture was further clouded by the fact that Omicron was spreading in parallel with Delta: Many of the countries that were seeing Omicron waves were already in the midst of a Delta wave connected to the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere. For example, Japan had cases growing about 20 percent week on week for several weeks before it saw significant numbers of confirmed Omicron cases. Many of the deaths seen while Omicron cases were already growing rapidly were still Delta cases.

Death numbers always lag a few weeks behind case numbers. For example, in Tokyo the average gap between Covid diagnosis and death is about 15 days. Then it takes another 16 days on average for the death to be reported in the evening news. This means, the death count reported in the media was from people who on average died 16 days ago after having a positive PCR test 31 days ago. The positive result of the PCR test would have been included in the daily count on average about 2-3 days after the test was taken.

There is some evidence that Omicron is less virulent than Delta. A study on hamsters showed that the variant seems less capable of infecting lung cells and seems to be more focussed on the nose, throat and windpipe, which may also contribute to its easier spread. It’s not clear how these animal study results translate to humans. In December, different numbers were reported for how much less virulent Omicron was overall or specifically for unvaccinated people, with risk reductions mentioned anywhere from 15 to 70 percent.

In any case, milder than Delta does not mean mild: Delta was worse than Alpha which was worse than the D614G strain that devastated Italy and New York city in March 2020, which was worse than the original Wuhan strain. Omicron may still be as bad as one of its pre-Delta ancestors, which were deadly enough.

Finally, we have some numbers coming in.

During the Delta wave the UK 7-day trailing count of deaths had reached a peak of around 1,200 in early November 2021, when almost 100% of cases were still Delta. On January 14, 2022, when most UK cases were Omicron, this had increased to about 1,800 deaths in the last 7 days, about 50 percent more deaths per week than at the peak of Delta.

The picture is similar in Canada, where 7-day deaths peaked at 344 in October with Delta. On January 15, 2022 the same metric reached 606, almost twice as deadly, with Omicron.

While the Case Fatality Rate (CFR), which is defined as the number of deaths divided by confirmed cases, has declined with Omicron relative to Delta, this is primarily because of the extraordinarily rapid growth of cases, which grew faster than deaths climbed. The CFR went down even as deaths increase. Thus Omicron can appear to be milder and not so mild after all, as it ends up killing more people per week than Delta did. If cases go up 5-fold but deaths “only” double, the CFR will fall by 60 percent.

The only saving grace may be that Omicron will most likely burn through the infectable population more quickly than Delta ever did. Cases have peaked in South Africa, the UK and most of the US. By February they will probably also peak in Japan (before I and most others can get a booster here).

Wear a good mask, if you meet people do it outdoors, ventilate, get vaccinated and get a booster if you can.

Links:

Waiting for third doses in Japan

In December, 470,000 medical workers, 280,000 seniors (65 and above) and 90,000 others in Tokyo were qualified to receive the 3rd dose because of the time interval since their second dose and their status. Only 63,292 (7.6%) of them actually received their dose. 1,829,880 booster doses were supplied by the central government. As for January, out of 620,000 qualified individuals, 29,645 (4.8%) have received their dose so far. The scheduled supply for this month is a further 1,702,800 doses for Tokyo, for an accumulated total of 3,532,680. The number of people eligible for boosters in Tokyo by the end of February is only 2,100,000.

Also, according to the Cabinet Office (kenbetsu-vaccination_data2.xlsx file), Tokyo had received 16,586,310 million doses of Pfizer for 1st/2nd shots in 2021, of which they have used 15,358,949 doses (92.60%). Therefore, about 1,227,361 Pfizer doses should still be have been available before any of the above mentioned supplies were delivered.

Nationwide, about 10 million doses of Pfizer have been supplied but not used (165,148,620 vs. 155,989,956). Of the 50,000,000 doses of Moderna that the central government had contracted for, 34,251,400 had been distributed and 31,938,353 actually used. That leaves about 18 million doses unused, which translates to 36 million booster shots, if you add 18 million sets of syringes (Moderna boosters are half doses of regular 1st/2nd doses).

It’s not a supply problem. Based on these numbers, it’s going to be something like a mere 120,000 people with a booster in Tokyo by the beginning of February, when literally millions could have received them. Meanwhile, new cases numbers (most of them Omicron) have been increasing 4 to 5-fold week on week. We will soon hit unprecedented numbers of cases.

Without a 3rd dose, two doses of Pfizer received 5 months ago offer little protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron, though they still reduce the risk of hospitalizations and other severe outcomes. This is because of the immunity escape from Omicron. Even two weeks after the second shot, efficacy is only a little over 60% with Omicron, significantly lower than with Delta. A third shot boosts efficacy to a slightly higher level than after the 2nd shot, winding the clock back by 6 months or more. Accelerating the booster campaign by using left-over vaccine doses as soon as possible should be a high priority.

Another important point is to improve the messaging on masks: Many people are still using simple masks that cover the face but do not fit particularly well. Mask policy in Japan is still not based on the recognition that Covid-19 is airborne disease that spreads via aerosols. One person can infect another without them being in the room at the same time. High grade masks like N95, KN95, KF94, FFP2 offer much better filtration because they reduce the unfiltered side stream. They offer the best first line of defense against the explosive spread of Omicron. A rapid roll-out of boosters should be the second line.

Numbers listed for all 47 prefectures in this MHLW document:
追加接種対象者数、接種回数及びワクチンの供給量 (“Number of subjects to be additionally vaccinated, number of times vaccinated, and quantity of vaccine supplied”, mhlw.go.jp)

Vaccination data by prefecture from Cabinet Office:
kenbetsu-vaccination_data2.xlsx (kantei.go.jp)

Upgrading to the Pixel 6 Pro

After several Nexus phones, a Pixel 3 and a Pixel 3a, the new Google Pixel 6 was an easy upgrade choice. I’ve been very happy with both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a, especially the image quality, so much so that I virtually stopped using my cameras. Just about the only thing the DSLR still did better was the optical zoom. The new Pixel 6 Pro has one dedicated telephoto lens that should help narrow the gap. I ordered it in December and it arrived in the new year.

I chose to migrate the contents of my Pixel 3 to the Pixel 6 Pro, since that was my main camera phone before. The new phone has 512 GB of flash memory vs. 256 GB in the old one so there are no storage issues. Copying files across using the upgrade tool and a USB-C cable was relatively straightforward. I wish the migration did not default to Japanese (my old phone was set to English), but that was no major obstacle and I could change the language afterwards.

Moving Line and WhatsApp chats across via a Google account was not difficult either, I just had to do some searches to get the backup and restore steps right. I moved the data-only SIM card from the old phone to the new one before I started. With the data-only SIM card I use a Google Voice account for SMS-verification but I will soon swap the SIM card for a voice-enabled SIM that directly handles SMS with a new phone number.

On my Pixel 3a I am using Pasmo/Suica for contactless payments and train fares since it has the Mobile FeliCa chip needed for “osaifu ketai” (wallet mobile phones). My US sourced Pixel 3 does not have this functionality. I wasn’t sure if the Pixel 6 purchased from the Japanese Google online shop would have the chip or not, since I could not find any explicit reference to it. However, it seems to work.

First I tried to directly charge the phone with cash at a machine at train station but the phone wasn’t recognized when I placed it into the charging cradle.

Then I tried to install and setup the Mobile Suica app, a truly horrible piece of software that must have roots in the pre-smartphone era. No joy! It turns out there is also a Pasmo app in the Google Play store. Uusally I treat Pasmo and Suica as synonymous since they’re different brand names for the same technology but in this case they’re not the same thing. The Pasmo app was really easy to install and set up. I selected the configuration without personal details (i.e. not linked to a bank account or credit card) and everything went smoothly. Charging it at the train station worked and so did a payment at a convenience store.

So how about the camera, the main reason I bought the phone? I tested it on Monday, which was a public holiday (Coming of Age Day), on a 162 km bicycle ride in west Izu. The weather was perfect for the numerous Mt Fuji views. I took shots from morning to after sunset, many of them telephoto shots zooming into Mt Fuji (see image above and below).

I will be able to make good use of this on my bike rides.

Hokkaido wind power for Japanese energy

Nikkei reports (“Japan pushes for undersea cables to solve wind power puzzle”, 2022-01-02) that the government is allocating 5 billion yen (about US$43 million) in its supplementary budged for a feasibility study for a 4 GW high voltage direct current (HVDC) link between the power grids of the northern island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, where most of Japan’s population lives. This would be by far the biggest HVDC link ever built in Japan. The Japanese government wants to generate 45 GW of power from offshore wind in 2040, up to about a third of which (14.65 GW) is to be produced in Hokkaido. The development plan lists several promising offshore areas along the southwest coast of Hokkaido.

For this power to be available to consumers outside the northern prefecture, it would need to be exported via a HVDC link. This is the preferred technology for shifting large amounts of power over long distances, especially between AC grids not synchronized with each others or operating on different frequencies. Since 2019 there have been two 300 MW HVDC links between the two islands. Their combined capacity is to be doubled to 1.2 GW by 2028.

Japan has relatively little capacity for transferring power between its regional grids. This is because its grids used to be operated by regional monopolies that had little incentive to ever import or export power. This lack of interconnect capacity became a major problem following the power shortage after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami when less affected areas could not help out the most affected region. There is a conflict of interest between the local utility companies and the country as a whole. Tepco owns a lot of nuclear power stations, expensive infrastructure with huge sunk costs. It would rather generate power from these plants than pay another supplier from outside its area for renewable energy. However, many of these power stations have yet to be restarted since their shutdown following the Fukushima meltdowns. By restricting how much power can be imported from other grids, Tepco can put pressure on regulators to allow it to restart more reactors to ensure a stable supply of power. On the other hand, expanding interconnect capacity would ease the pressure. Which side will the Japanese government take?

A related issue is the variable output of renewable power sources. Long distance transmission will make it easier to compensate for local weather patterns by shifting power between different regions, which allows a larger share of renewable energy to become part of the mix without having to resort to either energy storage or peaker plants (e.g. gas turbines to cover peak loads). That again means Tepco loses leverage to maintain coal and other fossil fuel powered generating capacity as insurance against shortfalls of renewable energy.

China, one of Japan’s main economic rivals in the world, has pursued a completely different course. Over the past decade it has aggressively expanded long distance HVDC links to stabilize its grid. Japan operates a single HVDC link of at least 1 GW, a 1.4 GW link between Honshu and Shikoku that started operating in 2000. All other links are only in the several 100 MW range and most of those are not long distance lines but back-to-back local interconnects, for example between the 50 Hz grid of eastern Japan and the 60 Hz grid of western Japan near Nagoya. By contrast, China has built over 20 HVDC links over 1 GW, mostly with a capacity of 3 GW or more. Many of the biggest projects cover distances of 1,000 to 2,000 km. This allows China to supply it coastal megacities with hydroelectric power from its southeastern mountains or from other power sources from its arid central parts. China is the world leader in wind power. Its windiest parts are along its border to Mongolia and on the Tibetan plateau. Large scale HVDC is key to China’s energy policy for the 21st century.

An alternative to shifting power long distance is to use it to locally generate hydrogen from water (“green hydrogen”) and feed it into pipelines or use it to make ammonia. This makes some sense for applications that already use hydrogen, such as the fertilizer industry or for carbon free alternatives to existing technology, such as direct reduction of iron ore for steel making without using coking coal. However, it makes little sense to use green hydrogen for power generation: if you convert electricity to hydrogen which you then use to generate electricity, more than 70 percent of energy is lost in the process while less than 30 percent remains. By contrast, batteries are 90 percent efficient. Therefore, if excess wind or solar power is used to produce hydrogen, that resource should best be used by industries that directly consume hydrogen, until all fossil fuel currently used for such purposes has been replaced.

If Hokkaido had a surplus of hydrogen from wind power, it would make more sense to have it consumed by steel works and fertilizer plants built in the prefecture rather than sending it through a pipeline to Honshu.

Although green hydrogen or ammonia can be used as fuel in thermal power plants in place of coal or LNG, it would be a terribly wasteful use. Because of the huge conversion losses, we would need three times more wind or solar power to end up with the same amount of usable electricity than if we used grid-scale battery storage to absorb any surplus and make it available when needed. This advantage makes grid-scale battery storage a strategic technology.

Most existing Li-ion batteries depend on relatively scarce resources such as cobalt, nickel and lithium. Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries only require lithium and widely available materials, while sodium ion batteries use only readily available raw materials. Japan will need to invest in high capacity long distance HVDC links as well as in battery storage to speed up its transition to a carbon neutral economy.

Japan’s sixth COVID-19 wave and third doses

Compared to over 100,000 new cases a day in countries like the UK and France (each with roughly half the population of Japan), 500+ Covid cases in Japan may seem almost trivial. Japan has recently experienced something of a post-5th wave honeymoon after months of falling cases, but that is set to end very soon.

As of today (December 31), the weekly average of new cases in Tokyo has been higher than the weekly average one week earlier for 23 consecutive days. In the entire month of December the 7-day average only decreased week on week on 4 days, all of them towards the beginning of the month.

What’s more, the rate of increase is going up. Before Dec 19, the highest week on week increase was 1.26. Since then it has been 1.40 or higher. Today’s weekly comparison reached 1.68, the highest since August 4. Only six days in the 5th wave had a higher weekly increase, all between July 30 and August 4, when Delta cases outgrew Alpha cases.

Is this because the more infectious Omicron strain is outgrowing Delta now? Most likely not yet! The number of confirmed Omicron cases from community spread is still small compared to Delta. That means the cause is likely to be social: People are feeling relatively safe because of the much lower case count compared to last December’s 3rd wave and also they want to do things that they will most likely not be able to do in a couple of weeks, once Omicron takes over. Sadly, that’s exactly how Omicron will take over. We’ve entered super-exponential growth, even if it’s from a low basis.

What’s the Japanese response to this? So far, no new restrictions have been imposed yet. Opportunities for free testing, regardless of symptoms, have been expanded. However, the plan for 3rd vaccine doses has been left virtually unchanged. The booster program was originally created when it was found that immunity to Delta dropped after a number of months. Japan then decided on an 8 month interval between 2nd and 3rd doses. However, it takes a much higher level of antibodies to neutralize the heavily mutated Omicron strain, even if you’re still far from 8 months. A third shot of Pfizer/BioNTech will raise vaccine efficiency against symptomatic infection from under 30 percent to over 70 percent, close to what it was for Delta with two doses. Japan has not responded to this new reality yet. The official policy on the Cabinet Office website still states that 3rd doses are due “in principle” after 8 months. That means, people who were vaccinated in August and September are not due for booster shots until April or May. There is no question that Omicron will blow up into big number in January and February already.

It may be some comfort that the number of cases in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve 2021 was only 6 percent of the cases of a year before. On the other hand, it took South Africa only 14 days to go from a weekly count of ~2,000 cases to ~33,000 cases when Omicron arrived. Do the math!

From December 2 (the first day of the booster campaign) to December 28, the latest date for which data is available, Japan has deployed 531,296 third shots to healthcare workers. That’s just 11% of the healthcare workers who received 2 doses and about 0.4% of the entire population. That means before the New Year starts, 8 out of 9 healthcare workers who will soon have to be dealing with an onslaught of Omicron cases have not yet had their immunity level doubled.

In many countries in Europe, between 20 and 50% of the adults with 2 doses have received their third dose already and yet they are experiencing tens of thousands of cases. For example, Portugal, which has only 70% of the population of Tokyo but a higher rate of two vaccine doses in its population and where a quarter of the population have had 3rd shots, counted over 17,000 new cases on December 29. Tokyo counted a mere 76 cases.

While two doses will still offer good protection from hospitalization and death, they will not prevent a rapid increase in cases. On present plans, the third shots will come too late for many healthcare workers and senior citizens.

The other lines of defense should be masks and ventilation. Most people in Japan do not yet use high grade masks such as N95/KN95/FFP2/KF94/JN95 and I am seeing little effort to promote their use over regular surgical or other masks. Likewise, there is little emphasis on preventing airborne spreading, such as installing HEPA filters, upgraded ventilation, etc.

Omicron and Japan’s sixth COVID-19 wave

Three members of a family hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms in Osaka have tested positive for the Omicron variant. They are the first cases reported in Japan without a travel history or linked to someone with travel history. All other cases were either detected at immigration inspections or in quarantine or linked to someone who had recently arrived from abroad.

It must be assumed however that there are many other cases that remained undetected and spreading under the radar screen. As the Washington Post reported on December 15, the Philippines had quarantined a man on December 1 who had tested positive on arrival from Japan and who was later confirmed to have been infected with Omicron. It therefore sounds likely that there was already some community spreading in Japan three weeks ago, soon after the variant was isolated by scientists in South Africa.

During the Delta-driven fifth wave in July/August, the 7-day average of cases peaked on August 24, with the health care system in crisis. At that point the reproduction rate fell below 1. For several weeks the fall was so steep, cases almost halved every week. The most likely explanation for that was increasing immunity in the population from a successful vaccination campaign in combination with continued wearing of masks and reduced mobility (e.g. working from home, less eating out in restaurants). After two months the reproduction rate slowly increased again but as long as it stayed below 1, it still resulted in a further reduction of cases. Weekly cases reached a temporary minimum on November 9. For about a week, cases slightly increased before sliding again at a somewhat slower rate than before. Since then the reproduction rate has been gradually drifting up. Since the minimum in late November/early, December Tokyo cases have been rising from a very small basis of about 100 cases per 7 days, 99.7 percent below the 33,000+ cases per 7 days in late August. They are now around 200 cases per 7 days, a doubling in three weeks.

For the last 4 days the 7-day average increase from a week earlier has been over 40 percent, which is equivalent to a doubling every two weeks. This is not really surprising. Once cases had dropped to less than one percent of the peak, people felt safe to resume activities that they had not been able to do for a very long time, such as enjoying year end parties or having wedding receptions with guests. They felt the risk was low enough.

However, Delta has not gone away. It is still around and as people’s level of antibodies from vaccines gradually wanes, they become more susceptible to infection again, even if they remain largely protected against hospitalization or death. This is compounded by greater risk-taking when cases are perceived to be “rare enough.”

We knew that Omicron would eventually spread in the community. When it does, it will not immediately replace Delta. For a while, both will be increasing but at different rates. A level of immunity and non-medical interventions (such as mask-wearing) that is only just about adequate to control Delta will be unable to halt the spread of much more infectious Omicron. Under the current conditions where even Delta cases are increasing, we would continue seeing Delta grow relatively slowly while Omicron cases would explode. Eventually, especially as hospitals start to fill, people will modify their behaviour to reduce exposure, for example by avoiding restaurants or by using KN95/KF94 masks instead of surgical masks or cloth masks. This would then push the reproduction rate of less infectious Delta below 1 and its cases would fall while cases of more infectious Omicron would still increase but at a slightly reduced rate. That is the point from which Omicron will start to replace Delta rather than spread in addition to it.

Third doses can reduce the exposure to Omicron, especially for the older generations who were first to get vaccinated this spring and summer but Japan has not taken any measures yet to speed up the additional shots. From the beginning of December to December 21, third shots averaged a mere 10,000 per day which is less than one percent of the rate achieved and maintained for several months in the Summer.

Japan is still running its booster campaign as if its only purpose was to prevent a resurgence of Delta (like in Israel last summer) rather than to protect the population as well as possible against the immunity escape that comes with the new Omicron variant. This has to change.

I can only hope that the first official case of community transmission of Omicron will galvanize the government into action for dramatically speeding up the distribution of third shots, especially to senior citizens and people with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable.

Waiting for Vaccine Boosters in Japan

In the spring of 2021 Japan was running about 4 months behind the US and much of Europe vaccinating its population against Covid-19. Vaccinations for senior citizens did not start ramping up significantly until May when other countries had started in December 2020 or January 2021.

After Israel and then the US decided to go for 3rd shots to boost immunity after antibody levels dropped months after 2nd shots of Pfizer and Moderna, Japan also negotiated for booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna. The government went for an 8-month interval and planned for 3rd shots for healthcare workers from December 2021 and the general population from January 2022, with eligibility starting 8 months after the second shot.

Then came Omicron which significantly escapes immune system responses from antibodies. Without boosters protection against symptomatic infection drops significantly with this new variant, as it takes a much higher concentration of antibodies in the blood serum to achieve sterilizing immunity. Long term T-cell immunity, which still protects against hospitalization and death, is much less affected.

In the city of Setagaya, Tokyo where I live, those who have received their second dose at the end of June will receive tickets by the end of January that will allow them to make vaccination appointments some time in February. So far no date has been announced for the group I’m in but having received my shots in July, I probably won’t be getting those tickets before late February and no booster appointment before March. It’s going to be a very long three months when some European countries are expecting to be Omicron-dominated by Christmas, within 4 weeks of the WHO having awarded B.1.1.529 its new name!

Japan is talking to Pfizer about moving part of the 78 million booster doses due for delivery in Q1 2022 forwarded so they can be dispenses sooner. However, former vaccine czar Kono Taro recently pointed out on his personal blog that Japan has enough leftover vaccines still in stock to give 56 million booster shots without waiting for any supplies from Pfizer or Moderna.

In order to protect the public from the new coronavirus, efficiency and speed are more important than equality and fairness.

Some people say that if the vaccine is brought forward, the supply of the vaccine will not be sufficient in time.

At present, Pfizer and Moderna have about 10 million doses of vaccine in stock in the market.

There may be a few doses that have been discarded, but there is no way that 1 million doses were discarded.

In addition, 4 million doses of Pfizer have already been distributed to local governments.

Another 12 million doses of Pfizer will be distributed next week and the week after.

In addition, we have 15 million doses of Moderna in stock for this year, and since the third dose of Moderna is only half the amount of the first and second doses, we will need 30 million doses for the third dose. This will be 30 million doses.

This means that 56 million doses of vaccine could be distributed by the end of the year.

In the first quarter of next year, Pfizer will distribute 30 million doses and Moderna will distribute 24 million doses. In the first quarter of next year, Pfizer will receive 30 million doses, Moderna will receive 24 million doses, and the third dose will be 48 million doses, for a total of 7.8 million doses. In the first quarter of next year, Pfizer will receive 30 million doses, Moderna 24 million doses, and 48 million doses for the third dose, for a total of 78 million doses.
(3回目のワクチン接種, 2021-12-09 [translation by DeepL])

The Japanese government can not blame a slow booster vaccination campaign on a lack of supplies. It needs to act as quickly as possible. The day before yesterday, Germany gave about 1.3 million booster shots in one day.

While officially no community spread of Omicron has been detected in Japan yet, that may simply being because they are not looking for it hard enough.

On Wednesday, 2021-12-15 the Philippine government reported its first Omicron case, a Philippine resident of Japan who had arrived from there on December 1 and tested positive. He had symptoms of a cold at the time. After the positive test the sample was sequenced and determined to be Omicron. This suggests that most likely Omicron was already circulating within Japan two weeks ago. Regardless, it will officially be here very soon.

Once it hits the hospitals, many nurses and doctors are likely to get infected and may have to quarantine. As of today, only about 149,884 of about 5 million healthcare workers (about 3 percent) who had been fully vaccinated have received a third shot. That’s after two weeks of booster campaign. 97 percent are yet to receive their booster. Only 0.11 percent of the Japanese population have received a 3rd shot. In many European countries it’s 20 percent and more.

The vaccination of the elderly is not even due to start until another two weeks from now. There are 52 million people in Japan who have received two doses and are age 50 or above. We should use the doses that we have now as soon as we can.

We really have no time to lose.

Toyota Hydrogen Combustion Engine Cars

Since 2014 Toyota has sold a little over 10,000 Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV). The starting price of this 4 seat sedan model in Japan is about 7.1 million yen (currently about US$63,000) which is more than 50% more expensive than a battery electric Tesla Model 3 which seats 5 adults. And it seems unlikely that Toyota can make a profit on a car being made in such small numbers as the Mirai, unlike Tesla does with the cars it makes in large numbers in its plants on three continents.

Tesla sold about half a million battery electric vehicles (BEVs) last year and looks set to sell somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million cars in 2021. This means Tesla will have sold twice as many BEVs every week in 2021 than the total number of FCVs Toyota has sold since 2014. The sales gap between BEVs and FCVs is getting bigger and bigger.

Recognizing that the high cost of fuel cells makes it difficult to compete, Toyota has announced that it sees a market for cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) that burn hydrogen instead of gasoline. They should be cheaper to make than fuel cell cars and will not produce any CO2 if hydrogen is made from non-fossil energy sources.

It’s not a novel idea though. BMW tried it in its BMW Hydrogen 7 technology carrier based on its 7-series back in 2005-2007. It never went anywhere. Besides the absence of a fuel supply network, there were also issues with emissions. Hydrogen flames burn extremely hot, which means you end up with a lot of smog-forming NOX emissions — worse than diesels.

In terms of efficiency, hydrogen ICEs are worse than FCVs which are much worse than BEVs. While BMW used cryogenic tanks with liquefied hydrogen at -253 °C, Toyota most likely will use high pressure tanks like in its Mirai for its hydrogen ICEs. They hold hydrogen gas at pressures of up to 700 bar. Both liquefaction and compression require huge amounts of electricity that can not be used for propulsion but is effectively wasted. An FCV consumes three times more electricity for electrolysis to make the hydrogen fuel it consumes than a BEV uses to charge a battery to drive the same distance. A hydrogen combustion engine is even less efficient. Where will this hydrogen come from? We don’t currently have a surplus of solar panels or wind turbines to produce this electricity. That means a hydrogen economy will need significantly larger investments in renewable energy than with battery vehicles. Hydrogen for cars makes no economic sense whatsoever.

It makes even less sense for hydrogen ICEs than for hydrogen FCVs. Fundamentally, it’s no more than an excuse for not giving up on building internal combustion engines, pretending that nothing has changed even in a world that is facing climate change that wee need to address as soon as possible.

I am afraid Toyota will not make a turn-around and face the reality that the industry is switching to BEVs within the shortest time possible until it replaces Toyoda Akio, its current company president. Mr Toyoda is the grandson of the founder of the company and a keen race car driver. He lacks the vision that Toyota will need in the transition to a carbon free future. Mr Toyoda needs to retire, along with the dead-end technologies he is committed to.

Subaru announces the Solterra, it’s first battery electric car

Perhaps not by coincidence Subaru chose the week of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to launch its first battery electric car, the Solterra (the name is a portmanteau of the Latin worlds for sun and earth). To say that it’s based on the same “e-TNGA” electric vehicle platform as the Toyota bZ4X understates how much the two cars have in common: They are basically one and the same car fitted with different badges. Even the wheels are the same. You have to look very carefully at this pair of genetically identical twins until you find a minor detail that distinguishes them: Yes, the rear lights are a bit different.

Toyota owns 20% of Subaru and they have shared models before (Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ), but I did not expect to see so little recognizable Subaru DNA in their first battery electric vehicle. Yes, there is a four wheel drive model of both the Solterra and the bZ4X and one assumes that Subaru had a hand in design choices for this, but 4WD is by no means unique for BEVs, as models ranging from the Tesla Model 3 to the Volkswagen’s ID.4 are also offered in dual motor 4 wheel drive configurations. Even the hybrid Prius is available in an electric 4WD version.

What seems a little odd is that the non-4WD model is front wheel drive (FWD). In internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, FWD offers some advantages as it saves having to have a long drive shaft between the front engine and the rear differential. The engine and the gearbox can be bolted together and directly drive the nearby front wheels. At the same time the weight of the engine and gearbox provides good traction for the driving wheels, especially in wintry conditions.

With a BEV however, the bulk of the weight is not in the engine but in the battery under the passenger compartment. Thus there is no real advantage in driving the front wheels as opposed to the rear wheels.

An electric motor driving the rear wheels can be very compact, not much bigger than the rear differential and exhaust system in rear wheel drive (RWD) ICE car. Without the traction advantage of the engine over the wheels, it would be better to go for RWD to get more weight on the driving wheels when going uphill or when accelerating. The turning circle would benefit too if the driving wheels don’t have to steer. It is no coincidence that both Tesla and Volkswagen use RWD for their BEVs, in the case of Volkswagen despite the fact that its best selling models such as the Golf and Passat are FWD. So why not Toyota and Subaru? It’s a mystery to me.

Another detail that surprised me was that even though DC charging on this car can reach a respectable 150 kW, AC charging at home is limited to mere 6.6 kW, which is less than for a compact Chevy Bolt. A Golf-sized ID.3 actually handles up to 11 kW. Some of this may be due to the Japanese Chademo charging standard and domestic grid considerations, as Japanese households only have access to 100 V and 200 V single phase current while the US and Europe use the CCS standard and 120 V / 230 V respectively, with 400 V 3-phase AC available anywhere in Europe. So even if there were technical reasons for limited AC charging speeds in Japan, export models should be able to do much better. Toyota may have specified its home charging module to the smallest common denominator, which if true is a bit disappointing.

As for the looks of the Toyota bZ4X / Subaru Solterra, to me they look like a close cousin to the existing Toyota RAV4 that I personally do not find very appealing. However, it is a big seller in the US market and this similarity may help move existing RAV4 owners over to BEV models once they become available some time in 2022.

Toyota has never been enthusiastic about battery electric vehicles. Its official line has been that hybrids are good enough for today and tomorrow we’ll get hydrogen fuel cell cars like its own Toyota Mirai, with all the benefits of battery electric but none of the drawbacks. There was no real space for battery electric in this vision. Toyota clearly over-promised and under-delivered on this strategy: Hybrid cars still spew CO2 into the atmosphere while almost all hydrogen today is made from fossil fuels. Battery electric does much better than that.

In Japan Toyota could rely on the government to help promote its “hybrids today, hydrogen tomorrow” story but in international markets that won’t fly. There the war for the future of the car is over and battery electric won hands down. No other country has a comparable push for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure as Japan has. Even if there were a domestic market for hydrogen cars in Japan, there won’t be any export markets.

Most experts agree that hydrogen vehicles are at least three times less energy efficient than battery electric vehicles, a flaw that would kill them even if the cars and the necessary fueling infrastructure could be built for the same cost, which isn’t the case. Batteries are far cheaper than hydrogen fuel cells and DC chargers are cheaper than electrolysers and hydrogen fuel stations. With battery prices falling further and further, within a few years BEVs will become cheaper to build than hybrid cars. Then the speed of conversion will only be limited by battery production capacity. It’s not clear Toyota will have the right investments in place by then, since it says its future BEVs will eventually be using solid-state batteries, an as yet unproven technology that only exists in the lab.

Until now Toyota had been avoiding BEVs except for the Chinese market, as it hoped buyers would keep buying its existing more profitable hybrid models. That is becoming a risky bet. Drastic changes needed to avoid the worst of a climate disaster no longer seem so radical compared to worldwide measures taken to deal with SARS-CoV-2. Huge numbers of consumers are ready for change. New BEVs by competitors are picking up market share in the US and in Europe. Toyota can no longer afford to wait on the sidelines or it will be seen as becoming irrelevant due to obsolete products.

This new BEV model is a very cautious move by Toyota and Subaru. Instead of competing head on with Tesla or Volkswagen, Toyota and Subaru are entering the BEV market only about as far as they absolutely have to, to still be a credible global player in 2022. The two companies will have to up their stakes to keep up with market developments.

Covid-19 numbers in Japan and Germany this autumn

My home state of Bavaria (population: 13.1 million) in Germany has had 30,117 new Covid-19 cases in the past 7 days, a 7-day incidence rate of 229 per 100,000. Meanwhile, Tokyo (population: 14.0 million) has had 142, a 7-day incidence rate of 1 per 100,000. The difference in numbers is simply staggering. Given that Germany started vaccinating its citizens months before Japan, it had a headstart on the road to immunity but it has since given up this advantage. A larger share of Japanese residents is fully vaccinated in every age group than in Germany. The growth in the vaccination rate slowed to a crawl in Germany months ago, while it’s still continuing at a healthy clip in Japan.

About two months ago, Tokyo’s Covid incidence (147 per 100,000 in 7 days on 2021-09-03) was quite similar to Bavaria’s current rate. But while the Covid incidence rate has been falling week after week in Japan since early September, it has almost doubled in Germany. The Japanese drop in cases has been amazingly consistent. When cases fall by half every 8 days and this continues for 8 weeks then cases will fall over 100-fold overall. That’s what an exponential decrease looks like. It happens when the reproduction rate of the virus drops below 1.

According to a numerical model created by Kris Popendorf, the two main contributors to the swings in the reproduction rate of the virus are mobility and immunity (you can read more details about his model here). One pushes the number up, the other pushes it down. The combined changes of the two either push the number above 1 (case numbers grow) or below 1 (cases drop). There are other factors, such as adherence to mask-wearing in indoor situations but in Japan’s case this has barely budged even when cases have been falling. Even when the risk of encountering infected individuals has decreased, few Japanese have stopped wearing masks as they still strive to comply with social norms.

With the end of the state of emergency, mobility has increased. People have started to go out and travel again and companies are reducing remote work. On the other hand, while rates of immunity will increase further, this increase is slowing down as the vaccination campaign will be nearing the saturation point over the next month or so. This will shift the balance of the two factors driving the reproduction rate of the virus towards the factor that drives an increase. We can therefore expect the rate of drop to slow and eventually rebound when mobility reaches a level that outweighs the level of immunity in the population. To achieve herd immunity regardless of mobility, the vaccination rate would have to reach a level estimated to be as high as 85-90 percent, which even Japan is unlikely to reach.

Case numbers in Tokyo are now at a level about 1/200 of the peak in August. Therefore even when the numbers start rebounding and grow again, there remains some time for public messaging to prevent a return to a caseload that would overwhelm the healthcare system.

I am much more concerned about the situation in Germany, which has a significant population of people reluctant to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated. While not as large as in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria or the USA, it makes it very difficult to get numbers under control. In Bavaria, the Covid-19 incidence amongst unvaccinated people is 9 times higher than amongst fully vaccinated people (451.5 vs. 50.9). This means that even though about 65 percent of the population are fully vaccinated, the vast majority of cases are of unvaccinated people. Only 39 percent of teenagers are fully vaccinated there while more than two thirds of teenagers in Tokyo will soon have both shots. Even for age 65+ the rate is 80 percent in Bavaria vs. 91 percent in Tokyo, which means there are proportionally more than twice as many unvaccinated seniors in Bavaria as in Japan.

Unfortunately it will be very difficult to change the attitudes behind the vaccine resistance in Germany and other countries, as it is an issue of trust. Many of the people reluctant to get the shots trust neither politicians nor mass media nor medical professionals nor science in general. They will therefore be difficult to reach.

Restrictions on public activities, such as eating out or travel that are becoming more convenient again for low-risk vaccinated people will gradually erode the non-vaccinated population share but that will take time.