By Rocky Swift and Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is only using a sixth of its capacity to test for the coronavirus even as it is increasing its ability to do so, government data shows, adding to concern that it is not doing enough to contain its outbreak.
Nationwide capacity for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test has grown to 7,500 a day, on track to reach 8,000 a day target by the end of the month.
But the number of tests conducted has been on average 1,190 a day over the past month, totaling 32,125, according to health ministry data. That compares with more than the 200,000 tests conducted in South Korea and 80,000 in Italy.
The ministry says it has made it easier for doctors to order the PCR tests, so the figures for the number of tests carried out reflects the discretion of physicians.
“Just because you have capacity, it doesn’t mean that we need to use that capacity fully,” health ministry official Yasuyuki Sahara told a news briefing on Tuesday. “It isn’t necessary to carry out tests on these people who are just simply worried.”
The health ministry’s statement however contrasts with a study by the Japan Medical Association, reported by public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday, that 290 coronavirus tests requested by doctors had been refused by health centers.
The doctor’s organization cited its nationwide poll showing the refusals happened in 26 prefectures in a 20-day period through March 16, NHK said.
Japan has had 868 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 29 related deaths, not including cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, according to NHK’s tally on Wednesday morning. An additional death was reported by local media in the afternoon.
The virus has infected more than 180,000 people and killed almost 8,000 globally with the most serious spread now taking place in Europe after China, where the virus originated late last year, brings its epidemic under control.
While Japanese doctors have carried out more than 32,000 tests, only 16,484 people have actually been tested, given that many are often tested multiple times.
World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said countries need to boost testing. “We have a simple message for all countries: test test test. Test every suspected case,” he said.
Japan’s health ministry has been focusing on clusters of cases, with the biggest around the megacities of Osaka and Tokyo, and in the prefectures of Hyogo, Hokkaido and Aichi.
The ministry’s latest cluster map shows 13 such groupings across the country.
With the rate of testing low, unseen clusters may be “rapidly increasing where containment is failing”, said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London.
To increase surveillance without overtaxing hospitals and doctors, Japan should introduce the type of drive-through testing that South Korea has implemented, Shibuya said.
Japanese health authorities have said there is no need for drive-through testing, although NHK reported on Tuesday that health minister Katsunobu Kato said he was open to the idea as a way to keep infected people out of hospital waiting rooms.
The United States and most of Europe have enacted travel bans and put major cities on lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Japan has closed schools and canceled many sporting events, but has refrained from putting firm restrictions on travel, businesses and restaurants.
Sahara said more containment measures may be announced after a meeting on Thursday of infectious diseases experts who have been advising the government.
“We are conducting investigations, collecting data,” Sahara said. “So it isn’t that we are complacent or we are optimistic.”
(Reporting by Rocky Swift and Linda Sieg; Editing by David Dolan, Robert Birsel and Pravin Char)