- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2020

South Korean health officials say the world has a lot of learn from how the country contained a vicious early outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but told a Washington audience last week South Korea itself has a long way to go before even thinking about declaring victory.

Initially one of the hardest-hit epicenters of coronavirus infection, Seoul has been winning high praise for its massive mitigation response to flatten the infection curve and a testing and tracking regimen to identify and contain new outbreaks.

What once was a rate of infection that reached more than 900 confirmed cases on a single day has now plummeted in a matter of weeks to a daily infection rate in the single digits. On April 23, the nation saw just eight new confirmed cases, and just 89 across the country in previous seven days.

Despite reporting its first cases in early February, South Korea has recorded just 10,708 confirmed cases nationwide, with 8,501 recovered patients. Just 240 deaths — in a nation of 51 million people — are attributed to the virus, fewer than the number in U.S. states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin.

In a teleconference hosted by George Washington University Thursday, Director-General of the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Science International Cooperation Bureau Hee-Kwon Jung cited the government’s focus on expansive testing, experimental treatment and advanced data collection as key factors in diminishing the virus’ spread soon after it peaked in late February.



“In the case of Korea, test kits [were] a very important factor in how to handle this COVID-19,” Mr. Jung said. “Because COVID-19 is an unknown virus, it was very important how quickly we developed the test kits.”

South Korean researchers began developing possible test prototypes before the virus was confirmed in the nation in mid-January, with the government of President Moon Jae-in fast-tracking the regulatory process for approvals.

Using artificial intelligence techniques, South Korean companies were able to mass-produce effective tests in a matter of weeks. These tests, Mr. Jung said, can detect COVID-19 infection in “a matter of seconds,” allowing doctors to test thousands of patients each day with results in real-time.

The Korean government also instituted a tracking system through a “self-quarantine safety app,” which allowed residents to monitor their own symptoms and self-isolate if necessary. Those who tested positive for the virus were asked to share information about their recent whereabouts, aided by cell phone GPS tracking and credit card transactions.

These details enabled the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue alerts to the public about possible places of exposure while keeping the identity of those infected anonymous.

After weeks of self-isolation, residents in Seoul South Korea flocked to crowded cafes and picnicked in public parks Saturday, all while wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. This picture of outdoor festivities and crowds is in stark contrast with cities in the US and Europe, where strict lockdowns have turned once bustling cities into ghost towns.

Moran Ki, a professor in the Department of Cancer Control and Population Health at South Korea’s National Cancer Center, said officials learned a harsh lesson about the importance of preparedness from a previous outbreak in the peninsula.

After the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak of 2015, South Korean’s public health commissioner ordered a review of all systems should a future epidemic threaten the nation again. These changes, Ms. Ki said, shifted the capacity of the national health system to handle an outbreak of large proportion.

Ms. Ki says the South Korean virus “preparedness” was not perfect, but the expanded capacity — especially the ability to treat patients of varying severity in different facilities — contributed to the nation’s low mortality rate, which is hovering around 2%.

“I think in other countries if their goal is to decrease case fatality rate, at first, they should prepare separation based on the severity of the patient,” Ms. Ki said.

Although South Korea’s virus count has significantly curbed since February, Ms. Ki says experts are proceeding with caution.

Ms. Ki said residents of the Korean peninsula should not expect life to ever fully return to “normal.”

“I think we cannot go back to the before-COVID-19 era,” Ms. Ki said. “I think we have to live with COVID-19 forever, so we have to change our lifestyle and our work style and our health system to live with the virus.”

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