By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo’s first drive-through coronavirus test centre was launched this week, as Japan ramps up efforts to prevent its medical system crumbling under the growing weight of new infections.

The city Yokosuka, south of the capital, is starting walk-through testing on Friday – the first of its kind in Japan – in which a samples will be taken by a medical worker stationed in a phone booth-like protective box.

The launch of the time-efficient tests, which have already been put in place in countries such as neighbouring South Korea, follow criticism from medical experts over the limited access in Japan to PCR (polymerase chain reaction) swab tests.

Active testing is seen as vital to detecting and isolating cases, and critics say the low rate of testing in Japan has made it difficult to trace the new virus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease, as it spread in major cities and led to a series of in-hospital infections, crippling some facilities.

In a simulated test conducted at the new site in Tokyo’s Edogawa ward for reporters on Wednesday, a car drove up to a testing point, a doctor in protective gear approached and inserted a cotton swab into the driver’s nostril to collect a sample, and the car drove off – all in less than one minute.

“We saw an eightfold jump in the total number of positive patients (in Edogawa) in three weeks, to 89 today from 11 at the end of March,” Ward Mayor Takeshi Saito said.

“As we have more tests, we will have more and more positive cases as well.”

Tokyo has by far the largest number of coronavirus infections in Japan. Edogawa, with a population of 700,000 in eastern Tokyo, worked with an association of local doctors to launch the test, which started accepting patients on Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile Yokosuka, a port city on Tokyo Bay, opted for the walk-through test that offers better protection to medical workers.

The tester enters a phone booth-like structure and uses arm-length plastic gloves protruding through two holes at the front of the box to collect samples from a patient outside.

“Drive-through tests can be done more easily. But you need to wear full protective equipment, and working in it for just an hour saps your physical strength,” Hikari Takamiya, deputy head of the Yokosuka Medical Association, told reporters on Thursday.

“As virus clings to the surface (of protective gear), you run the risk of getting infected when you take it off after finishing your shift, fighting off fatigue.”

Nearly 300 new coronavirus infections were reported across Japan on Thursday, taking the total number to 12,286, with 308 deaths recorded, public broadcaster NHK said.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Alex Richardson)