The government, under fire for low testing rates for the coronavirus, eased access Friday and indicated that a new test to supplement the PCR tests could be approved next week.
The health ministry said it now wants people experiencing breathing difficulties or heavy sluggishness to seek advice on whether they have the coronavirus.
Government guidelines previously said people should only consult a public health center about geting tested if they had a fever of at least 37.5 (99.5 F) for four consecutive days. They also suggested the elderly should have cold symptoms for two straight days before seeking a consultation.
The new guidelines, however, say both the young and the elderly should consult health centers immediately if they have relatively mild cold symptoms for four days or longer.
Those centers are tasked with screening potential patients before administering the polymerase chain reaction tests for the virus.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike welcomed the move. “The widening of the gateway, which was narrow, makes it easier to have tests,” she told reporters.
The expert panel advising the government said Monday that the “overwhelming” shortage of personal protective equipment for sample collectors and laboratory technicians has been one factor behind a slow pickup in PCR tests.
Japan is conducting 188 PCR tests per 100,000 people, compared with rates of 3,159 in Italy and 3,044 in Germany, data from experts advising the government showed on Monday.
Critics say the low rate in Japan has made it difficult to trace the virus in major cities and has led to a series of in-hospital infections, crippling some facilities.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato told the Diet on Friday the government’s review of antigen test kits, which are simpler and quicker to conduct than PCR tests, will be completed next week for possible approval.
An antigen test targets the virus’s protein to establish whether a person is infected, while an antibody test is used to detect those who have been infected with the virus.
“We can use them once approved. We would naturally need to think about utilizing them to supplement PCR tests,” Kato said.
Fujirebio, a subsidiary of testing provider Miraca Holdings, last month applied for government approval for Japan’s first antigen coronavirus testing kits.
In an additional step to help promote more tests, the government plans to start providing medical workers with 30 million surgical masks, 2 million gowns and 1.5 million face shields starting next week.
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