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Is Korea Fighting Virus Better This Time?
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Is Korea Fighting Virus Better This Time?
The outbreak of a new coronavirus is wreaking havoc on many countries including Korea.
PHOTOGRAPH: KEVIN FRAYER/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTOGRAPH: KEVIN FRAYER/GETTY IMAGES

By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea

An epidemic across borders in general causes a major headache for health authorities trying to combat an infectious disease spreading rapidly to many people, as well as unsubstantiated rumors and fear-mongering surrounding what is often previously unknown to science.

Stopping the spread, as discussed by WIRED, takes masterful medical detective work, including tracing the people who have been infected and figuring out their web of contacts, steps that are vital to understanding how it is being transmitted. How fast and well they do the job is of the essence.

Therefore, it has been viewed as a litmus test of governments’ ability to respond to crisis.

South Korea has been rattled by several epidemics over the past 20 years: SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) during the Roh Moo-hyun administration; Influenza A (H1N1) during the Lee Myung-bak administration, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) during the Park Geun-hye administration.

Today, a mysterious coronavirus from China is on a rampage, putting health-emergency readiness of incumbent President Moon Jae-in and his administration to its toughest test.

“The government will provide support by mobilizing every available resource" to rein in the deadly outbreak, said the president this week during a meeting with his senior aides.

Since it first emerged in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, in December, this novel type of coronavirus, temporarily dubbed 2019-nCoV, has sickened more than 43,000 people, taken the lives of more than 1,000, and spread to at least 28 countries and territories. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern,” as the number of infection cases continues to rise.

Because this virus was hitherto unknown, many public health experts around the globe are trying to wrap their heads around what it is and where it came from.

While many questions remain unanswered to pinpoint the true source of the virus, the coronavirus likely originated in animals and was passed on to humans, just as the SARS and the MERS, both of which were also coronaviruses that are highly pathogenic and transmissible from human to human. And this may have been followed by transmission between people. A Chinese wet market where wild and exotic animals were sold is believed to be implicated in the origin and spread of this coronavirus, as early cases of infection were clustered around the now-closed Huanan Seafood marketplace.

The virus takes anywhere from two to 10 days to give rise to symptoms once it has invaded a person’s respiratory system. Those infected show symptoms of coughs, fever, breathing difficulties, fatigue and pneumonia. In severe cases, there can be organ failure, which may lead to death. Based on the confirmed cases thus far, older people with weakened immune systems or those who have underlying health issues are more vulnerable to the disease.

“The fatality rate of the newly circulating disease pales in comparison to that of the SARS and the MERS, which killed about 10 percent and 34 percent of those infected, respectively,” said Park Eun-Cheol, a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Yonsei University College of Medicine. “The new coronavirus hovers at around 2 to 3 percent, though it could change.”

Jun Byung-yool, former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), said when juxtaposing the basic reproduction numbers, which refer to the numbers of additional people that an infected person typically makes sick, the new coronavirus is more prone to spreading between people than the MERS and as prone to spreading as the SARS.

It’s been roughly two months after this respiratory illness emerged in in Wuhan, but how has the global death toll in this outbreak already exceeded that of the SARS epidemic of 2003 and MERS of 2012, which lasted a little less than a year or more?

In attempting to answer that question, Park said with the risk of outbreaks has increased manifold as more people travel to various parts of the world more often than ever before. And what makes it even more tricky is that there is a high chance that people who carry the virus but do not, as yet, present any visible symptoms may still pass it on to others. This means containment of the virus is a very challenging job.

Many countries alarmed by the recent outbreak have ramped up measures like travel bans, border closings and trade controls to stop the virus’ spread. South Korea followed suit, denying entry to non-Koreans who have traveled to the Hubei province.

To help prevent infections at home, Moon’s administration has set up a couple of quarantine facilities outside Seoul and distributed real-time coronavirus test kits to be used on 4,200 people daily at designated clinics to speed up diagnosis. Such moves came after officials chartered two flights to evacuate around 700 South Korean nationals out of Wuhan.

Its latest move in curbing the disease was applying enhanced quarantine screening to visitors from Hong Kong and Macao as well as those from China.

There have been 28 confirmed cases in South Korea, a majority of which are either those who visited China or those who had not been to the country but had been in contact with those infected. No deaths have been reported on South Korean soil.

“Unlike the country’s slow response to the outbreak of the MERS, which occurred in 2015, it is swiftly responding to curb the new coronavirus from spreading while providing all relevant information to the public in a timely manner,” said Jun, who is now dean of Cha University’s Graduate School of Health Industry. “The government is conducting strict quarantine screening on travelers, identifying those with symptoms and providing them a quick diagnostic test for the virus and finding their contacts. It is doing it almost perfectly.”

The former KCDC director further complimented on the health authorities’ initial response by saying, “There has been no spread of this virus in our communities.”

But not everyone agrees with Jun, as the government’s response has faced some criticism. Residents near a quarantine center for South Korean citizens returning from Wuhan have protested the government’s decision to place the facility close to their homes. The KCDC has also come under fire for not disclosing the 17th and 18th cases to the public promptly.

“A number of confirmed cases occurred through secondary and tertiary transmissions of the virus, which suggests that the government hasn’t done a great job,” Professor Park said. “It is imperative that we prevent quadratic infection.”

Park said he expects this epidemic to continue well over several months – at least until July or August. But it really depends on the situation at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, and the Moon administration should provide full support to authorities there, whether it be supplies or doctors, he added.

This epidemic is far from over and there is still a possibility it could grow into a pandemic. With all these mentioned, one thing’s for sure: there is much more left to do for South Korea.

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  • Jenny Lee Staff Reporter jlee@wired.kr

    Jenny Lee covers information and communications technology, finance, and industry for WIRED Korea. She has previously worked with the Voice of America and the Associated Press Television News.