Coronavirus-testing robot in Japan takes on key tasks, reducing lab strain

Linda J. Dodson

KOBE, Japan — A Japanese medical technology company plans to develop a robot that can automate much of the process of coronavirus testing, as concerns mount in the country over a potential second wave of infections.

The robot from Medicaroid, a Kobe-based venture split equally between Kawasaki Heavy Industries and testing equipment company Sysmex, is designed to handle six tasks in polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests that normally require human involvement. Medicaroid targets an October rollout, it was announced earlier this week.

Though automation will not necessarily speed up screening, it can curb the risk of infection and reduce labor needs at testing labs. The robot also will allow facilities without trained technicians to conduct tests with some degree of accuracy.

Overseas manufacturers have partially automated PCR tests, but this robot would be the first to handle several steps, including rendering the virus inactive.

The robot will be based on Kawasaki Heavy’s duAro2 dual-arm unit, normally used for tasks such as assembly and packaging of electronic components.

“Japan’s specialty of robotics will help the world,” Medicaroid President Yasuhiko Hashimoto told reporters.

Hashimoto gave no sales target but said the robots would be produced “as necessary.”

Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto noted the risk of a second wave of infections.

“It’s important to increase our PCR testing capacity,” Hisamoto said at the news conference. The city is a hub for the biomedical industry, with roughly 370 companies and organizations involved in life sciences.

The city government, which is supporting the testing robot’s development, is earmarking about 50 million yen ($462,000) in a fiscal 2020 supplemental budget draft for expanding Kobe’s health care system.

Medicaroid also looks to develop a robot that can take saliva samples from patients, and another one that can care for patients at hospitals admitting individuals with mild or asymptomatic coronavirus infections. The latter will be able to ask patients about their symptoms and take temperature readings from a distance, as well as record their meals and medication.

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