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Coronavirus

As Japan lags in coronavirus tests, companies to triple capacity

Fears of second pandemic wave spur efforts to fill gap

Japan lags other advanced nations in the coronavirus testing rates. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

TOKYO -- Japan's largest diagnostic companies will step up to help the country in its lagging coronavirus testing effort by tripling their combined capacity to roughly 10,000 daily before summer's end.

Japan remains far behind other nations in conducting diagnostic screenings, especially as it hopes to prevent a second wave of infections after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently lifted the state of emergency for the entire country.

BML, whose daily testing capacity topped 1,000 at the end of April, intends to quadruple or quintuple that figure by August. The company will expand its office near Tokyo and add three more sites in underserved outlying areas.

LSI Medience will lift its daily capacity from roughly 300 to around 1,000 by early June. SLR, a subsidiary of Miraca Holdings, will boost its capacity to 4,000 per day by the end of the month, up from 1,600 at the end of April.

The nationwide capacity for DNA diagnostic tests, which use a polymerase chain reaction method, totaled 24,548 daily as of Monday. The health ministry's figure includes public- and private-sector screenings alike.

Japan aims to conduct 20,000 of these PCR tests daily. But the number peaked below 9,000 right after the country's Golden Week holidays early this month. Japan's per-capita testing is only one-tenth that of the U.S.

Abe has warned of a "bottleneck" in testing. Experts cite overstretched public health centers as well as underdeveloped processes for collecting and transporting specimens.

Agencies like the National Institute of Infectious Diseases initially conducted all the tests on behalf of public health centers. Starting in mid-February, tests were contracted out to Miraca, BML and LSI, along with other private-sector peers.

But these health centers continue sending most tests to public-sector agencies. The private sector apparently handles no more than about 60% of PCR tests.

Local governments are working to resolve the bottleneck by establishing testing centers in cooperation with the Japan Medical Association. Over 110 such centers have been set up so far.

Another issue involves the risk of health workers being infected by sneezes, as PCR samples are taken by inserting swabs inside an individual's nose. Japan's health ministry is close to approving PCR tests that use saliva instead. Takara Bio and Shimadzu have shown that their reagents can test saliva.

The race is on to roll out equipment and reagents for saliva tests. Kyorin Holdings is developing an automated system to relieve the burden on health-care workers.

"We are also developing a miniature PCR testing device that can be easily used by clinics and other small facilities," Kyorin President Yutaka Ogihara said.

An alternative to the PCR diagnostic method is a technique called loop-mediated isothermal amplification, or LAMP.

The PCR technique copies DNA sequences at fluctuating temperatures. LAMP can perform the same function at a constant temperature, simplifying the process.

While the accuracy rates are similar, LAMP tests are faster -- producing a result in about 45 minutes as opposed to over three hours.

But LAMP tests require proprietary equipment from Eiken Chemical. The company anticipates producing reagents for 200,000 tests a month, more than double its previous output. About 500 institutions across Japan use Eiken's system, and the company has received orders for over 100 additional units since the pandemic began.

"I plan to expand both fresh capital spending and the workforce," said Eiken President Morifumi Wada.

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