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News Navigator: Are gov't-OKed COVID test kits sold at pharmacies in Japan?

This photo shows one of the COVID-19 antigen test kits now available at pharmacies. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Harada)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about test kits for coronavirus infections now available at pharmacies.

    Question: Is it now possible to buy coronavirus test kits at pharmacies?

    Answer: On Sept. 27, the Japanese government lifted a ban on the sale of simple antigen test kits for medical use at pharmacies. In order to prevent the spread of infections, the government is urging people to take the tests themselves if they are concerned about their health.

    Q: Weren't such kits already available on the internet?

    A: The kits sold before the ban was lifted were not medically approved, and the government urged people not to use them, saying their quality could not be guaranteed. The products given the green light this time, however, had already been approved by the government. Pharmacists will explain how to administer the test and the need to see a doctor if its result is positive, and then ask the purchaser to sign a form. Kits are not covered by health insurance, so people have to pay full price.

    Q: How do they work?

    A: In general, nasal mucus collected with a cotton swab is dipped into the kit, which takes 15 to 30 minutes to determine whether the result is positive, negative, or invalid. However, even a negative result does not guarantee that a person is not infected. It is less accurate than a PCR test, meaning infection could be overlooked as a result.

    Q: I've heard a negative test result makes it possible to travel, right?

    A: You're referring to the "vaccine and test package" the government is considering introducing. The government is planning to allow people to travel and engage in other activities even during a state of emergency, as long as they have proof of vaccination or negative test results. It is assumed that antigen test kits, which are less expensive than PCR tests, will be actively used.

    However, the kits are not recommended for diagnosing symptomless people, because of the high risk of failing to detect an infection if the virus count is low. The government will decide on the system after November, but the handling of antigen test kits is likely to stir debate.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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