TOKYO : Japan’s government said on Tuesday it has approved saliva-based tests for the new coronavirus, offering a safer, simpler way to diagnose infection than nasal swabs as it looks to boost its testing rates.
Currently, nasal swabs are the main source for tests in Japan, but these can expose medical workers to coughs and sneezes at the time of collection, making it necessary for them to wear full protective gear.
The saliva-based tests are able to be given to those who have had symptoms for up to nine days, Japan’s health ministry said. It wasn’t immediately clear how much the change would boost overall testing capacity.
“This will vastly reduce burdens on patients as well as burdens that come with infection-prevention steps on the part of sample-collecting institutions,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters, outlining the change.
Japan falls well behind other industrialised nations in terms of its number of coronavirus tests. Critics say the low rate of testing has made it difficult to trace the virus, which has led to a series of in-hospital infection clusters.
As of May 20, Japan conducted 3.4 PCR tests per 1,000 people, far below Italy’s 52.5 and 39 in the United States, according to Oxford University data. South Korea has carried out tests on 15 people per 1,000 people.
Japan, which lifted its state of emergency last week, has escaped an explosive outbreak, with nearly 17,000 infections and 898 deaths so far, according to NHK public broadcaster. But the epidemic has tipped the world’s third-biggest economy into recession and sent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s popularity to multi-year lows.
The health ministry said about two dozen different test kits, including one from Takara Bio Inc, have been approved for saliva-based PCR tests. Shares in Takara Bio jumped 4% on Tuesday, outperforming a 1.19% rise in the Nikkei average.
Thirty-four new coronavirus infections were reported in Tokyo on Tuesday, NHK said, marking the first time the number of daily cases has topped 30 in 19 days.
Musashino Central Hospital in western Tokyo said 12 patients and three hospital workers had been confirmed with the virus, taking the total number of cases at the hospital to 31, forming the latest infection cluster.