COVID-19 has been around for the best part of a year, and medical technology has been racing to keep pace with the rise in infections and viral mutations. Until recently, unless you were presenting with COVID-19 symptoms, or were deemed to be a close contact of another confirmed case, you didn’t qualify for the free or low-cost testing offered in Japan. For the asymptomatic or only potentially exposed, the only other option was to pay for a test out of pocket, which generally cost a daunting ¥25,000 to ¥40,000.

Moreover, there has been a longstanding element of built-in embarrassment, or even shame, about needing a test in some quarters, and information about who qualifies for one remains somewhat unclear. However, as the coronavirus has become entrenched in daily life, people are becoming more open about testing, and the private sector is stepping in to expand testing options. In the past few weeks, several low-cost facilities have entered the scene, offering no-frills testing for a fraction of the price at a regular clinic. Here’s what you can expect.

One such facility comes courtesy of Kinoshita Group, a Shinjuku-based firm which has opened two testing centers in Shinbashi and Shinjuku this month under the name “New Corona PCR Testing Center,” with plans to expand the number of facilities in the Kanto region to six next year. The centers are operated by Wakokai Medical Corp., a division of Kinoshita Group that manages clinics and nursing homes, and have been established through a collaboration of technology and business know-how from several group companies. A saliva test with next-day results by email will set you back only ¥3,190 (after tax).

“The whole process takes just a few minutes, so it is quick and easy for anyone who wants a basic test,” says a PR representative from Kinoshita Group. The staff are trained to perform their task efficiently, although she points out that they do not necessarily have a medical or research-related background. “It’s not a clinic, it’s a testing center.”

A special group testing service for corporations or local governments is also available, and for ¥2,750 per person (minimum of 50 people required), Kinoshita Group offers delivery and pick up services for the group’s saliva test kits.

However, getting tested is not simply a matter of showing up. Appointments must be made in advance through an online system managed by a third-party logistics site, E-park. With the numbers of COVID-19 cases rising, and more people worried about the risk of potential infection, these no-frills testing services are in high demand and it might take a week or more to get an appointment slot. Note that both centers will be closed from Dec. 31 through Jan. 3.

A similar service is offered at a testing center near Nihonbashi Station. This is operated by SS Dnaform, a subsidiary of K.K. Dnaform, which engages in biotech research and development. The tests utilize technology developed in cooperation with Kanagawa Prefectural Institute of Public Health, among other stakeholders, and costs just ¥1,980 for the basic service. Results are sent by email the following day. For those who can’t wait that long, express service with same-day results is available for ¥9,900, while a “DIY testing by post” option will deliver an email result for ¥2,200 (in principle on the day after the test kit is received by the center).

“Due to the low cost and ease of use, the service is proving very popular. Appointments must be made online and currently the first availability is after the middle of January,” says a representative for SS Dnaform. She adds that there are plans to open more test services in the future.

It should be noted that the online reservation services for both SS Dnaform and Kinoshita Group’s services are currently only in Japanese, although the PR representative from Kinoshita Group said that offering information in other languages “would be one aspect we would like to consider in the future.”

If you truly need a test in a hurry, then you may still need to go to a regular clinic that offers the service. Clinic For Life operates six medical clinics in Tokyo and is a Tokyo Metropolitan Government-designated medical institution for infectious diseases.

As a so-called travel clinic, it offers testing at locations in Tamachi, Otemachi and Iidabashi for people who need to get proof of a test in order to travel overseas. If you come in by 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, the results will be ready within the same day at a cost of ¥33,000. If you need them even faster, an expedited “rapid test” is available for ¥44,000 with results in as little as 15 minutes.

“Even if they are not traveling abroad in the near future, anyone who wants a test is welcome to make an appointment, but should be aware of the cost,” says a Clinic For Life staff member.

“We also conduct testing for people who are eligible for a free test, such those showing symptoms of COVID-19, or who have been instructed by the public health office to get a test due to potential exposure.” She cautions that even in this case, however, there is a consultation fee and other costs (depending on the timing of the patient’s visit and their health insurance), adding up to around ¥3,500 on average.

For some people, the immediate peace of mind that comes with being tested by trained medical staff and having doctors on the premises may offset the higher costs of testing at a medical clinic, versus waiting to secure a spot at an comparatively inexpensive street corner testing center. If international travel is on your agenda, note that some countries may not accept results from a saliva test as valid proof, so you might need to seek out a clinic for another kind of test, such as by nasal swab, which fits the requirements.

And if you’re looking for a gift for that difficult-to-buy-for-person? Costco offers a “COVID-19 Saliva PCR Test Kit” for ¥8,000 online.

With COVID-19 showing no signs of abating, and mass vaccination still some months away, it’s safe to assume we will see more testing centers and options emerging.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just approved the first home coronavirus tests consumers can buy at a local store without a prescription. Users take a nasal swab, add a few drops of liquid to the sample and place it into a small plastic device. Results are received within 15 minutes, wirelessly transmitted to a smartphone app.

For the foreseeable future, however, wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds and meticulous use of hand sanitizer are probably still the best line of defense against COVID-19.

New Corona PCR Testing Center (Shinbashi & Shinjuku)/Kinoshita Group: covid-kensa.com; saliva test from ¥3,190; medical certificate ¥6,600 (service slated to start in 2021); online reservation required; next-day results via email

PCR Smart Amp Station (Nihonbashi)/SS Dnaform: smartampstationdnaform.jp; saliva test from ¥1,980 (standard), ¥2,200 (by post), ¥9,900 (express); certificate written in Japanese and English service resuming in 2021; online reservation required; same-day results via email (express), next day (standard) or post

Clinic For Life (Tamachi, Otemachi, Iidabashi): clinicfor.life; saliva test (nasal swab available upon request) from ¥3,500 (if qualified for public support), ¥33,000 (standard), ¥44,000 (rapid); certificate for ¥5,500 (Japanese), ¥11,000 (English); online reservation required; same-day results

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