• Kyodo, Jiji

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Japan will begin providing the anti-flu drug Avigan for free to 38 countries as early as this week for treating patients with the new coronavirus, according to Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.

At a news conference Tuesday, Motegi also said over 70 countries, including the 38, have made requests for Avigan to Japan, which has decided to offer a $1 million grant to the United Nations Office for Project Services to buy and distribute the drug, also known as favipiravir, to countries that want it.

“I’ve heard that (the U.N. agency) is arranging to start transporting the drug around the holidays after procedures have been completed,” Motegi told the news conference, referring to the last five days of the Golden Week holidays from Saturday through next Wednesday.

Among the 38 nations are 25 European countries, mostly from Eastern Europe, six in Asia including the Philippines and Malaysia, five in the Middle East such as Kuwait and two from other regions, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Motegi said Japan will be provided with data obtained from clinical tests on COVID-19 patients that will be conducted in the recipient countries using the drug, which was developed by a group firm of Fujifilm Holdings Corp.

Japan has also been undertaking such tests, which will last through June, after a study in China suggested the drug is effective in treating patients.

“It is vital that the international community cooperate in swiftly developing effective therapeutic drugs,” Motegi said, referring to such drugs as “critically important” in the short run, as with vaccine development in the long run.

The government has requested the group firm, Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co., boost production of Avigan. But as the drug is also feared to cause birth defects, it cannot be administered to expecting mothers or those who may become pregnant.

As part of the latest emergency package to cushion the economic fallout from the virus adopted earlier this month, ¥13.9 billion will be allocated to boost the stockpile of Avigan to three times the current amount for use in treating 2 million people infected with the coronavirus.

A scientific study in China concluded in March that the drug had been effective for patients, especially those with mild symptoms. Beijing has said it will officially adopt the drug as part of its treatment guidelines for COVID-19 patients.

In a related move, the health ministry is expected to give approval as early as next month to an antigen test kit that can quickly detect coronavirus infections, sources familiar with the matter said.

Tokyo-based testing reagent developer Fujirebio Inc. filed for approval for its test kit Monday. The kit can detect proteins unique to the novel coronavirus from a sample taken from the back of the nose in about 15 minutes.

Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests are currently widely used to test people for the virus. However, the test takes four to six hours to produce a result, hampering efforts to deal with a recent spike in suspected infections.

Several companies are developing kits for antigen tests, though they are thought to be less accurate than PCR tests. The ministry plans to speedily screen antigen test kits once they are submitted for approval.

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