Japan Steps Up COVID Testing, But Some Say More Effort Needed | News on the coronavirus pandemic

During the pandemic, Japan performed about 60 tests per 1,000 people, compared to 130 in South Korea and 1,000 in the United States.

Last week, around 600 people were tested for the coronavirus in the city of Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo – the Japanese government’s first stab at systematic randomized and targeted testing that it hopes will prevent a new wave of infections.

Some 300 people walking in the city and 300 others in local schools underwent PCR or saliva-based polymerase chain reaction tests.

Compared to the mass testing in South Korea, China and other countries, it was a small effort, but for Japan, the testing exercise – which was to be replicated in many parts of the country – represented a significant step forward.

Concerned about highly transmissible variants of the virus and asymptomatic spread, Japan revised its pandemic strategy in early February, and the new tests came as many areas emerge from a two-month state of emergency and Tokyo braces for to host the Olympics in July.

However, many health experts have argued that the updated strategy is still far from meeting needs, especially as vaccinations are only just beginning and vaccine stocks are limited.

Department of Health policy to avoid mass testing to conserve hospital manpower and resources is “upside down and utterly wrong,” said Yusuke Nakamura, renowned cancer researcher and geneticist .

He believes Japan has squandered opportunities to reduce infections to zero with extensive PCR testing and should invest heavily in automated PCR testing systems.

The government performs about 40,000 PCR tests per day, or about a quarter of its capacity, limiting testing to people who are symptomatic or have a high chance of infection.

Cluster bypass

During the pandemic, it performed around 60 COVID-19 tests per 1,000 people, compared to 130 in South Korea and 1,000 in the United States, according to the Our World in Data website run by a university research program. from Oxford.

Instead, Japan focused on breaking the clusters by tracing their sources, with the Health Ministry defending its COVID-19 testing regime as meeting standards set by the World Health Organization.

To be fair, this policy, combined with instructions for the public to avoid crowded and poorly ventilated areas – as well as the widespread wearing of masks, had been relatively successful in containing the virus until infections rose earlier this year.

This year’s state of emergency, the second in Japan and aimed at shutting down restaurants and bars at 8 p.m. (11 a.m. GMT), has significantly reduced business. Tokyo has reported an average of less than 300 cases per day over the past seven days, up from several days of more than 2,000 cases in early January.

Japan started mass vaccination program with Pfizer-BioNTech jab [Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP]

Health ministry officials have also argued that testing is sufficient if the positive rate for the coronavirus is around 5% or less. Japan’s seven-day average positivity rate at the end of February was 2.8%, while Tokyo’s was 3.5%.

Calls for more testing, however, have also found support among some lawmakers.

“Now that the cases are declining, this is our chance to expand the tests,” said Yuichiro Tamaki, who heads the People’s Democratic Party, a small opposition party. He wants the government to provide free antigen-based self-test kits to every citizen.

Tamaki says he has the backing of other lawmakers, including some from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as widespread testing could allow the government to revive tourism promotion campaigns.

Highlighting doubts about central government efforts, some local governments are taking matters into their own hands. The cities of Ichikawa and Inzai, east of Tokyo, offer free PCR testing to people over 65, while Hiroshima has set up five temporary PCR testing centers free of charge.

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