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Japan stocks edge lower as COVID-19 woes weigh on sentiment

TOKYO, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Japanese shares inched lower on Friday as investors fretted over the risks that surging COVID-19 cases in Tokyo could pose to recovery prospects in the world’s third-largest economy.

The Nikkei share average lost 0.19% to 26,756.89 by the midday break, while the broader Topix was nearly flat at 1,791.84 ahead of a central bank policy decision. Both the indexes, however, were on track to post weekly gains.

The Japanese capital Tokyo raised its COVID-19 alert level to the highest of four stages on Thursday as the number of new cases spiked to a record daily high of 822.

The market was also wary of a stronger yen against the dollar, which last sat at 103.32 yen after falling as far as 102.88 yen overnight.

But market losses were capped by a strong Wall Street performance overnight, said Masahiro Ichikawa, chief market strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui DS Asset Management.

All three major U.S. stock indexes closed at record highs on growing optimism about a coronavirus stimulus bill.

Nearly two-thirds of the 33 sector sub-indexes on the Tokyo exchange traded higher. Nonferrous metals led advancers on the main bourse, boosted by investor expectations of rising demand for electric vehicle batteries.

Sony Corp gained the most among the top 30 core Topix names, up 2.89% after hitting its highest since October 2000 on stay-at-home demand.

Among individual decliners, Toyota Motor fell 0.84% as investors chose to book profits after it rallied to the highest level since August 2015 in the previous session.

Investors now look to the Bank of Japan’s policy decision, though some analysts say market reaction would be relatively muted.

The central bank is expected to extend a package of steps aimed at easing corporate funding strains caused by the coronavirus, while keeping interest rates steady.

The Mothers Index of start-up firm shares lost 0.23%, after hitting its highest level in 1-1/2 week earlier in the session. (Reporting by Eimi Yamamitsu and Tokyo markets team; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)

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