Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. said Friday they will cooperate with Tokyo-based Fujirebio Inc., a medical test kit maker, in boosting its output of kits that can can quickly detect the novel coronavirus antigens.
Fujirebio said it plans to more than double its weekly production capacity to 400,000 kits this year, helped by a new production line to be built in Asahikawa in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
The three firms said in a joint statement issued Friday that the new production line will be built at a plant of a Toshiba affiliate in Asahikawa.
Toshiba said it will also provide personnel and maintenance service, while Hitachi will provide consulting to achieve efficient production, according to the statement.
Last month, the Japanese government approved the company’s antigen test kits.
The antigen testing method involves taking swabs from the back of a patient’s nostril and placing it onto the kit. The method is similar to that used to test for influenza.
Testing for patients who may have been infected with COVID-19 has predominantly been conducted in Japan and globally using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which have to be carried out by medical experts.
The antigen test kits do not require expert skills for the tests to be conducted and results can be confirmed in around 30 minutes, significantly faster than the PCR tests, some of which require up to six hours to produce results.
The government has acknowledged, however, that the antigen test kits may not be as accurate as the PCR tests.
Japan’s Health Minister Katsunobu Kato has intimated that the antigen kits are supposed to be used in twine with PCR kits, with the antigen kits provisionally being able to swiftly determine whether a patient has been infected with the pneumonia-causing virus.
Those testing negative, but still displaying symptoms of the virus, will then take a PCR test, he said.
Japan’s health ministry earlier this week approved the use of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) coronavirus test using saliva, thought to be safer and easier to administer, to be used alongside the current tests which swab mucus from the back of the nostril.
“Both the burden on patients and sample-collecting institutions that need to protect staff from infections will be alleviated significantly,” Minister Kato told a press conference on the matter.
The test kits, which will be covered by national health insurance, will be used for testing patients within nine days of exhibiting symptoms.
The test is hoped to expose medical technicians carrying out the tests to less risk of infection as those being tested only need to provide a sample of their saliva to be tested.
The current PCR tests, require the swabbing of the back of a patients nose, the irritation and discomfort of which can cause a patient to sneeze or cough, raising the chances of infecting the medical professional administering the test.
Those administering the saliva tests do not need to be wearing the same amount of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gowns and googles required by those carrying out the standard tests.
Japan has been accused of not carrying out enough PCR tests as compared to other countries, raising concerns about the accuracy of the health ministry’s and local authorities’ figures for those who have contracted the virus.
Kato said the tests using saliva will significantly reduce the burden on medical institutions as the tests will be available at outpatient departments at designated hospitals and PCR testing centers.
The tests, the ministry said, will also be used for patients and staff with coronavirus symptoms at medical institutions, in a bid to lessen the occurrences of in-hospital infections.