In Japan, vending machines help ease access to COVID-19 tests

A staff member of Takenoko ENT Clinic replenishes a package containing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a vending machine at the entrance of a ramen noodle shop at Shibuya district in Tokyo, Japan March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

TOKYO (Reuters) - In Japan, convenience is king and getting tested for COVID-19 can be highly inconvenient. Part of solution, as it is for a range of daily necessities in Tokyo, has become the humble vending machine.

Eager to conserve manpower and hospital resources, the government conducts just 40,000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests a day, a quarter of its capacity, restricting them to people who are quite symptomatic or have had a high chance of being infected.

That's led to the public to rely heavily on private clinics or buying PCR tests by other means.

Vending machines selling test kits offer consumers the option of avoiding crowded clinics or having to wait for an appointment, said Hideki Takemura, director of the Laketown Takenoko Ear Nose and Throat Clinic which has set up seven machines in the greater Tokyo area.

"Japan was conducting a ridiculously low number of PCR tests and as a result more and more people couldn't tell whether they had a cold or the coronavirus," Takemura told Reuters. "Without PCR tests, no diagnosis is possible and I really felt we had to do more so that people could be diagnosed early and isolate early."

Takemura said there was a huge response from the public when the machines were first deployed and some needed to be emptied of money twice a day.

Demand has since ebbed somewhat as a third wave of cases subsided amid a state of emergency. New cases in Tokyo have averaged around 250 over the past seven days compared with several days of more than 2,000 in early January.

Each vending machine holds about 60 testing kits which sell for 4,500 yen ($40). Customers then mail off a saliva sample for processing.

"As a medical worker, I'd be very happy if the number of tests decrease along with cases," Takemura said.

Japan has about 4.1 million vending machines in operation, the most in the world per capita, according to a trade group.

In addition to vending machines, PCR tests have become increasingly available to the public via sales at drugstores or over the internet.

($1 = 108.3800 yen)

(Reporting by Rocky Swift and Hideto Sakai in Tokyo; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Edwina Gibbs)

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