Japan defends cautious approach on coronavirus testing amid concerns

By Linda Sieg and Sakura Murakami
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Japan defends cautious approach on coronavirus testing amid concerns

People wearing protective masks are seen in the Shibuya district in Tokyo

By Linda Sieg and Sakura Murakami

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's health ministry on Wednesday defended its cautious approach to coronavirus testing as domestic cases increased and South Korea prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the heart of a surge in its outbreak.

Japan had 175 domestic cases of infection from the virus as of Wednesday evening, separate from 705 from a cruise liner quarantined near Tokyo early this month and 14 from returnees on charter flights from Wuhan, China, public broadcaster NHK said.

The northern island of Hokkaido, the most affected area in Japan with 38 cases, reported another death while a Tokyo man in his 80s also died, bringing the country's total fatalities to seven including four from the cruise liner.

"We know that this virus will only spread even more and yet we can't even get tested," said one mother in Hokkaido's Sapporo city, adding she hoped testing capacity would be expanded.

Government guidelines say people should call designated hotlines for consultation on whether they should get tested if they have cold-like symptoms, a fever of 37.5 Celsius or extreme tiredness or breathing problems for four days or more. In the meantime, they should stay at home.

The elderly, pregnant women or those with certain medical conditions that put them at risk should make the call if they have such symptoms for two or more days, the guidelines say.

"The most important goal of testing is to test those with symptoms, especially the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions who are at risk of becoming seriously ill," a health ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I think there are people who are worried and want to be tested but ... that would overwhelm the capacity of medical facilities and we couldn't treat those who need treatment."

South Korea, besides testing members of the church at the centre of a surge in cases, advises people to get tested if they have a fever or respiratory problems.

Japan Medical Association President Yoshitake Yokokura told a news conference the group would investigate reports that people referred by doctors to local health centres for tests were being turned away due to manpower shortages, NHK said.

Grilled in parliament by opposition party leader Yukio Edano, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said that 6,300 tests were conducted from Feb. 18 to 24 for an average of 900 per day, while up to 3,800 tests could be done daily.

"There are many people who say they cannot be tested although their fever continues," Edano said. "Our country's resources are not being fully mobilised."

Masahiro Kami, a doctor and head of the non-profit Medical Governance Research Institute, said the government should test more people sooner to prevent deaths.

"They should test early and treat early but instead they are testing after people have pneumonia to confirm the virus," Kami said.

But some other independent experts agreed with the government approach.

"It isn't good to do tests just to ease public anxiety," said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University who this month criticised Japan's handling of the virus-hit cruise liner.

"If they test everyone with light symptoms, the medical system will puncture," he said, adding authorities needed to do more to explain the guidelines and gain public understanding.

(Corrects paragraphs 5-6 in a Feb 26 story to say guidelines are for people to call hotlines, not to get tested)


(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Sapporo; Editing by Robert Birsel)