• Jiji, Kyodo, staff report

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The health ministry has started allowing pharmacies to sell COVID-19 antigen test kits currently used by medical professionals, in an extraordinary step to contain the spread of COVID-19 by detecting infections at an early stage.

The ministry told prefectural governments Monday that pharmacies with pharmacists in attendance will be allowed to sell such kits immediately.

“Antigen test kits became available at pharmacies,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference Tuesday. “I encourage people to conduct the test themselves when they don’t feel well and visit medical institutions (if they test positive).”

Antigen tests detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in specimens by using a substance that sticks to its antigens — the proteins that cause the immune system to produce antibodies against the virus. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes to get the results.

The pharmacists will explain the test procedures to people buying the kits and advise them that they must see a doctor if they test positive for the virus.

Even if users test negative, they should continue to take infection prevention measures such as wearing masks because the antigen tests may fail to detect the virus if only small amount of it is in their body. For this reason, the ministry does not recommend the test as a definitive means of diagnosis for people who are not showing any symptoms.

Those buying the kits are required to sign a document to confirm that they have understood those precautions. The ministry also said people who already have COVID-19 symptoms should not go to pharmacies to buy the kits.

Antigen test kits not approved for use by medical professionals have already been sold at drug stores or online for research purposes, but the ministry said those kits should not be used to check whether a person has been infected with the COVID-19 virus since their performance has not been confirmed.

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