TOKYO -- A health-tech startup developed by Japan's University of Tsukuba will begin to analyze up to 6,000 COVID-19 samples from Thursday to help detect and curb the spread of more contagious variants.
Named iLAC, the startup's processing capacity is one of the biggest in the country. It is hoped the company will be able to find variants of the coronavirus that may be more resistant to vaccines, which will allow authorities to contain any spread of such. The company will collaborate with the Ministry of Health and share information with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Japan analyzes just 5% to 10% of COVID-19-positive specimens now, a number that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare wants to increase. To that end, it had begun outsourcing such analysis to private companies.
Major Japanese companies such as Shimadzu Corp. and Itochu have stakes in iLAC, which has also received subsidies from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The technology was developed by Takaaki Sato, a specially appointed professor at the University of Tsukuba.
Sato adapted the system from one used to detect the cancer genome. By automating some of the processes to extract the genes to be analyzed, it became possible for iLac to process as many as 6,000 specimens in around just 12 hours.
The company will use the equipment from Illumina, a U.S.-based biotech company, to analyze the virus genome. Each analysis will cost 30,000 yen ($270).
Other companies involved in this science have not disclosed their processing capacity. In many cases, the process is highly dependent on human labor. Takara Bio, which offers a similar service, is thought to be able to analyze only around 1,000 specimens per week.
Shimadzu and Itochu, iLAC's investors, will recommend iLac's service to laboratories and hospitals that analyze COVID tests. Tokyo-listed clinical laboratory operator BML will collect those samples and bring them to iLAC to be analyzed.
The U.S., Australia, and Europe are leading in genome analysis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, analyzes 6,500 specimens per week via a network of private companies. Australia said it would analyze all specimens from COVID patients.
Japan is behind in international cooperation and information-sharing. Seiya Imoto, an expert in genome analysis and professor at the University of Tokyo, said: "There are mutated strains that are highly infectious and may reduce the efficacy of the vaccine. Genome analysis needs to be done quickly to identify those infected with COVID variants so that action can be taken."