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Coronavirus

Japan looks to start coronavirus antibody tests this month

Experts have called for the move, which lags Western countries

An antibody test, shown here in Germany, can identify people who may not even know they had been infected with the new coronavirus.   © AP

TOKYO -- Japan will begin conducting antibody tests for cases of coronavirus infection as early as this month, the country's health minister announced Friday, saying he hoped the move would help combat the outbreak more effectively.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has yet to determine where or to what extent the tests will be administered.

Antibody tests can identify who has been infected by the new coronavirus and recovered -- a key question, since an estimated 80% of cases produce only mild symptoms. This can help determine who has potential immunity to the virus, making them safe to return to work.

Using them together with PCR tests, which detect the presence of the virus itself, Japan will seek "better operational performance and more efficient diagnosing," Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters.

Some hope that determining what proportion of Japan's population has had a brush with the coronavirus and survived can accelerate the restart of economic activity. Health experts in Japan have called for antibody testing as part of the country's response to the pandemic.

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health is conducting coronavirus antibody tests on blood samples from up to 10,000 people in an effort to determine the extent of the outbreak. Stanford University in California has developed a test that measures the amount of coronavirus antibodies in blood. Antibody tests are also seeing widespread use in Europe.

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