Two weeks earlier than China disclosed it was investigating a cluster of mysterious pneumonia instances in Wuhan in late 2019 — what the world now is aware of as Covid-19 — South Korea’s prime well being officers gathered for a quarterly table-top train to plan their response to a theoretical well being risk.
The hazard? A never-before-seen pathogen rising in China that was inflicting a spike in pneumonia instances.
The timing was a fluke. However the war-gaming, and selection of topic, wasn’t. Korea had realized painful classes from an outbreak simply 4 years earlier of Center East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. The nation overhauled the way in which it responds to ailments, giving it a worldwide edge when Covid hit.
In a world that is attempting to maneuver on from the virus, even because it nonetheless kills hundreds of individuals a day, Korean officers are as soon as once more reviewing their method, in search of insights for the subsequent pandemic — which they are saying might hit inside a decade.
The foundations for Korea’s Covid technique, considered as a worldwide success for avoiding lockdowns and widespread deaths, lay in an excoriating 466-page audit report on the response by the Korea Illness Management and Prevention Company and different well being authorities to the MERS disaster. In its raft of criticisms, the doc famous insufficient testing and isolation of MERS sufferers had fueled the unfold, as had deficiencies in information-sharing throughout the health-care system.
“We realized the significance of shortly discovering sufferers and segregating these uncovered to a virus earlier than they present signs,” mentioned Kyong Ran Peck, commissioner on the KDCA, which oversees public well being together with infectious ailments and vaccines.
Due to MERS, when Covid appeared, Korea had already constructed an unlimited test-and-trace system that enabled officers to zero in on and comprise outbreaks earlier than they unfold extra extensively.
Nonetheless, the KDCA’s evaluation of its Covid response has unearthed shortfalls that can inform officers’ method to the subsequent well being risk, which they are saying is more likely to be a respiratory virus.
“We’re evolving our insurance policies based mostly on the previous knowledge to focus on high-risk teams of individuals and high-risk amenities,” Peck, 60, mentioned in her first interview with worldwide media since taking the helm of the company in Might. Beforehand director of the Korea Society of Infectious Ailments, Peck was a professor of infectious ailments for greater than twenty years.
Measures like curfews, deployed in lots of elements of the world within the early days of the pandemic, weren’t efficient at containing what was a way more contagious virus than MERS.
The onset of much more transmissible Covid variants meant limits on gatherings and social-distancing measures additionally turned much less potent, Peck mentioned from the company’s leafy 98-acre headquarters in Osong, about 45 minutes by bullet prepare from Seoul. It is also residence to the Nationwide Institute of Well being and Ministry of Meals and Drug Security, Korea’s FDA, in addition to different analysis institutes, making coordination throughout the Covid response simpler.
Air flow programs throughout Korea, significantly in high-risk locations like nursing properties, have to be improved. Methods of higher supporting health-care staff additionally have to be addressed, Peck mentioned, given the burnout they skilled throughout Covid.
As a part of the evaluation, the company can be evaluating different hot-button matters: together with whether or not colleges wanted to shut, the efficacy of journey curbs and gathering restrictions in halting a brand new risk — and masks. Their findings are set to be launched in a white paper on Korea’s Covid response, based on Peck, who did not give particulars on timing.
It is value listening to what these consultants say. South Korea had one of many world’s lowest Covid fatality charges, with the third-fewest deaths per 100,000 folks out of the 38 members of the Organisation for Financial Co-operation and Improvement. It ranked solely behind Japan and New Zealand, based on the World Well being Group. Nonetheless, Korea detected a complete 26 million infections, the fourth-highest within the OECD, as a consequence of its monumental testing program.
Importantly, the nation by no means had a large-scale lockdown. Its vaccination price was the very best on the planet this summer season, earlier than widespread monitoring abated, with 2.4 pictures on common for each particular person, based on the WHO.
That success is due largely to that preparation achieved again in December, 2019.
“On the time, we thought the subsequent virus can be influenza or coronavirus,” mentioned Cheon-Kwon Yoo, director of the Bureau of Infectious Illness Prognosis Management, an company throughout the KDCA. “We had been getting ready for the subsequent pandemic, however we did not know it will come so quickly.”
Crucially, consultants devised a lab take a look at that dominated out coronavirus strains liable for the widespread chilly, plus the SARS and MERS viruses. Authorised inside weeks, it meant Korea might diagnose Covid even earlier than its genetic composition was recognized, placing the nation effectively forward of different nations that struggled to get testing off the bottom.
An elite epidemiology investigation group adopted up on these diagnoses, tracing each publicity and finally slowing the unfold of infections, mentioned Ki-suck Jung, a lung specialist at Hallym College and a member of Korea’s Covid-19 process pressure.
Initially that concerned a cellphone name to each Covid-positive particular person to debate their actions, adopted by calls to venues for affirmation. However the workload turned untenable as instances grew, so authorities switched to a QR-code check-in system, and checked out bank card spending and cell phone location knowledge — one other technique locked in because of the MERS outbreak — plus CCTV footage to trace folks.
A bevy of specialised hospital beds that isolate sufferers and management air movement had been put into medical amenities throughout the nation following MERS, serving to Korea keep away from the waves of Covid deaths seen in different elements of the world.
With the world in search of to place Covid up to now, the KDCA is set to be taught from the worst world well being disaster in a era. Whereas the risk was worldwide, the responses to Covid had been remarkably disparate. Worldwide communication and co-operation on tackling pandemics is vital, mentioned Peck. “We additionally realized we won’t do that alone.”
The subsequent problem could come earlier than we predict.
Whereas pandemics beforehand got here in 20-to-30 yr increments, mentioned Peck, it was solely a decade between the emergence of swine flu in 2009 and Covid-19.
The rise in world journey and local weather change are making the pandemic cycles shorter than ever, and it is crucial the world collaborates to arrange.
“Nobody is aware of precisely what the subsequent pandemic will appear like, but it surely’s correct to arrange for a worst case situation,” Peck mentioned.
“It could possibly be one other SARS-CoV-2,” she mentioned, referring to the virus’s scientific title. “It could possibly be worse.”
(Aside from the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV employees and is printed from a syndicated feed.)
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