Japan’s government said on Tuesday it has approved saliva-based tests for the new coronavirus, offering a safer, simpler way to diagnose infection as well as boosting the number of tests being carried out using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology.
Currently, nasal swabs are the main source for PCR tests in Japan. Coughs and sneezes at the time of collecting samples can expose medical workers to the risk of potential infection, making it necessary for them to wear full protective gear when taking samples.
The saliva-based PCR tests can be given to those who have had symptoms for up to nine days, Japan’s health ministry said. It wasn’t immediately clear how much the change would boost overall testing capacity.
“This will vastly reduce burdens on patients as well as burdens that come with infection-prevention steps on the part of sample-collecting institutions,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters, outlining the change.
Japan falls far behind other industrialised nations in terms of the number of coronavirus tests. Critics say the low rate of testing has made it difficult to trace the virus, which has led to a series of in-hospital infection clusters.
As of May 20, Japan conducted 3.4 tests per 1,000 people, far below Italy’s 52.5 and 39 in the United States, according to Oxford University data. South Korea has carried out tests on 15 people per 1,000 people.
Japan has escaped an explosive outbreak, with nearly 17,000 infections and 898 deaths so far, according to NHK public broadcaster. But the epidemic has tipped the world’s third-biggest economy into recession and sent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s popularity to multi-year lows.