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Editorial: Effective antigen, antibody testing key to coexisting with coronavirus

  • May 23, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

To expand efforts to identify people infected with the novel coronavirus, Japan has approved the use of antigen testing, which looks for traces of proteins that make up the virus in the body. The big advantage this testing method affords is that it’s convenient; its results become available in 10 to 30 minutes, enabling people to learn right then and there whether they’re infected.


People suspected of coronavirus infection will first be tested for antigens at medical institutions. If they test positive, they will be confirmed infected. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be conducted only when a person tests negative in an antigen test.


While antigen tests are less accurate than PCR tests, their use will help ease the burden on health care workers responsible for testing.


Until now, PCR tests were the only method used to tell if a person was infected with the novel coronavirus. But preparations for testing have not been sufficient, and people who needed them have not always been able to get access to speedy checks. This was because staff at public health centers, which function as outlets to accept those who need testing, and at regional health institutions that conduct testing, are overwhelmed by excessive workloads. There are also hurdles in transporting samples.


The involved parties should up the pace of their efforts to expand the country’s testing capacity, and prepare for a second wave of infections while supporting the progress of work in the current situation by using antigen testing.


Research is currently being done on ways to test for the coronavirus from a sample of a person’s saliva, a test method that poses lower risks from secondary infection. We ask that efforts continue to be made to expand testing options.


Antibody testing will also be introduced. This will show if a person has previously been infected with the virus. A total of 10,000 people in Tokyo, Osaka Prefecture in western Japan and the northeastern prefecture of Miyagi are set to be subject to antibody testing. By finding out what percentage of those people has coronavirus antibodies, we can estimate how far the virus has reached in parts of society.


However, we cannot say the data will be highly credible, as accuracy varies among testing methods. Furthermore, the causal relationship between the amount of antibodies someone has and their chances of reinfection has not been fully clarified.


While appreciating the characteristics these different testing methods have, we wonder if different data could be used to construct strategies that prevent the further spread of infections while preserving social and economic activities. If we can see disparities in infection statuses based on regions and occupations, it will become easier to implement measures appropriate for each situation.


Japan has fewer confirmed infections and deaths compared to other advanced economies. But at the same time, even if the country does succeed in containing this current wave of the outbreak, the battle against the new coronavirus will still be a long one, especially as it appears that there will not be vaccines to put into practical use any time soon.


There is no way but to live with this virus. We ask that all concerned parties devise ways to use these testing methods effectively.

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