• Chunichi Shimbun

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A lab technician looks hard at a 7-cm-tall resinous container, opens the lid ever so carefully and sucks up a liquid with a syringe. Then, 0.1 milliliter of the liquid is placed in a different container, mixed with a reagent. If even a tiny amount of the new coronavirus that could be contained in the sample enters the body, one can get infected.

Lab technicians at Gifu Prefectural Research Institute for Health and Environmental Sciences in the city of Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, who are on the front line of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing in the prefecture, have to keep on concentrating for hours, processing 20 samples per person in three hours.

Samples taken from people suspected of being infected with COVID-19 are carried into the institute and are tested inside a biosafety level 3 high-containment laboratory.

Most of the detailed pretreatment work conducted before putting the samples in testing equipment is done by hand by lab technicians wearing white protective gear. What they fear the most is cross-infection, or transfer of the virus via people or pieces of equipment.

If a virus from one sample gets attached to things like gloves and gets into another sample by mistake, it could lead to false test results. To avoid such cases, lab technicians constantly work under high pressure, meaning they can only work for a maximum of three hours a day.

A total of around 3,000 PCR tests had been conducted in the prefecture by the end of April, most of them at the institute and the Gifu Municipal Government’s hygiene laboratory. At the institute, about a dozen medical technologists and veterinarians take turns as lab technicians to conduct the tests.

After a sample is pretreated and put in the testing equipment, it takes two hours to get a result. The whole process takes some six hours. If the process is repeated three times a day, the last result would come out after midnight.

Samples started to flood in after a new COVID-19 case was reported March 22 that eventually led to the first cluster in the prefecture in the city of Kani. Tests were conducted on people suspected of being infected at two choir clubs and a gym in Kani and those who had close contact with them.

The central government’s testing guideline at the time stipulated conducting tests on those who had close contact with infected people and had developed symptoms.

But the Gifu Prefectural Government decided to test all the people who may have had contact with those infected, such as those who used the gym during the same period of time.

As a result, the number of people who had to be tested in relation to the cluster in Kani reached 303. The number of samples brought into the institute exceeded its daily processing capacity, and the institute had to ask Gifu city’s hygiene laboratory to take care of some of the tests unrelated to the cluster.

“We wouldn’t be able to keep going if even one lab technician fell ill,” said Yoshihiko Kameyama, 54, who leads the institute’s testing team. “I kept watching them carefully to see if they were feeling alright, and once I even forced a worker (who didn’t look well) to go home.”

Shopping streets in the city of Gifu were largely empty after a cluster of COVID-19 cases was discovered in March. | KYODO
Shopping streets in the city of Gifu were largely empty after a cluster of COVID-19 cases was discovered in March. | KYODO

But Kameyama said he told the team that the bottom line was to get the test results for the samples by the day after they were brought in at the latest. “People were worried that they may be infected and I wanted them to feel relieved as soon as possible,” he said.

The number of samples declined in May after the first wave of infections peaked. At the same time, the testing capacity in the prefecture increased as there are more medical facilities capable of conducting PCR tests, and the tests can now be entrusted to private-sector testing firms.

The institute is now receiving requests from university hospitals and testing firms to offer testing room tours and training sessions for their lab technicians, since having proper equipment is not enough to conduct tests.

Noriya Hosoi, 59, head of the institute, says the facility actively accepts such requests. The institute also decided to train its own workers in other departments to be able to work as lab technicians.

“Even if they have the knowledge, they won’t learn if they don’t actually work on it,” Hosoi said. “Our mission is to support the testing system for the entire prefecture.”

The daily testing capacity in the prefecture, which was 40 in the beginning, has expanded to 434. The institute and the hygiene laboratory increased their combined capacity to 120 samples per day, plus 194 by medical institutions and 120 with cooperation from doctors’ associations in each district.

As for the testing capacity of Japan as a whole, the government’s expert panel said in its proposal on May 4 that it is “clearly small compared with other countries.” The number of PCR tests per 100,000 people in Japan is one-ninth that of the United States and one-sixteenth that of Germany.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 17.

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