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Coronavirus

Japan's coronavirus testing behind the curve, Abe admits

Inability to gauge infection rate hinders strategy to reopen the economy

Admitting insufficient testing capacity, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to add more PCR centers.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's coronavirus testing has been insufficient by international standards as the nation lacked the capacity to respond to a new epidemic outbreak, the government conceded Monday, recognizing a serious roadblock to reopening the economy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that "personnel-related bottlenecks" have hindered broader use of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, screening for the virus. "I recognize that testing has been inadequate."

Japan has conducted 187.8 tests per 100,000 people, while other major economies have done more than 1,000 tests per 100,000, a report released Monday by a government expert panel found.

"Japan's efforts to increase PCR testing have been slow," said panel member Shigeru Omi, who participated in the news conference with Abe.

The lack of testing prevents experts from grasping a full scope of COVID-19's spread, making planning a exit from the stay-at-home request difficult. The inadequate testing has become the government's biggest obstacle to reopening the economy.

Monday's report attributes this slow increase partly to the near-exclusive use of public-sector institutions, such as the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, for PCR testing. In particular, local public health institutes usually handle testing for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and measles.

"Large-scale screening for a new pathogen was not envisioned, and sufficient systems were not put in place," the report said.

Though the spread of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan was reported in January, Japan did not form a panel of experts to steer its response until late February. As a result, "long waits for testing were widely reported" in late March and beyond, "mainly in urban areas where cases had surged," the analysis said.

The panel suggested that the insufficient testing among patients stems from factors including overworked local health offices, which handle recent arrivals into Japan and people who have come in close contact with coronavirus patients. It also cited staff shortages at public health institutes and delays in acquiring masks and other protective equipment.

The experts recommend bolstering the system of public health offices, expanding regional outpatient treatment and screening centers, ensuring a secure supply of protective gear, training more staff to collect samples and making greater use of private-sector testing companies.

The health ministry in late April began allowing dentists to conduct coronavirus tests after receiving training.

Though Omi expressed hope for speedy commercialization of rapid testing kits like those used for the flu, the ideal time for Japan to tap the private sector to expand screening capacity has passed.

Omi gave no clear answer when asked about the apparent reluctance to use private labs, saying only that "it's not at all the case that we didn't want to do it."

Abe said the extension of the nationwide state of emergency will give Japan "a month to bolster its defenses against a second wave. "We will add more PCR centers to expand capacity," the prime minister said. 

The panel's recommendations included nothing new, and Omi made no mention of numerical targets in a news conference Monday evening. The experts stood by their view that the lack of testing has had limited impact, citing Japan's low positive rate as evidence against the country having a vast pool of undetected cases.

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