South Korea Testing Hundreds of Thousands for Coronavirus Appears to Keep Death Rate Low

South Korean soldiers in protective gear sanitize a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

Highly contagious and manifesting in some with little or no symptoms, the coronavirus has the world struggling to keep up. But when it comes to containing the epidemic, one country may be cracking the code — by doubling down on testing.

South Korea is experiencing the largest virus epidemic outside of China, where the pneumonia-causing pathogen first took root late last year. But unlike China, which locked down a province of more than 60 million people to try and stop the illness spreading, Korea hasn’t put any curbs on internal movement in place, instead testing hundreds of thousands of people everywhere from clinics to drive-through stations.

It appears to be paying off in a lower-than-average mortality rate. The outbreak is also showing signs of being largely contained in Daegu, the city about 150 miles south of Seoul where most of the country’s more than 5,700 infections have emerged. South Korea reported the rate of new cases dropped three days in a row.

It’s an approach born out of bitter experience.

An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015 killed 38 people in South Korea, with a lack of kits to test for the MERS pathogen meaning infected patients went from hospital to hospital seeking help, spreading the virus widely. Afterward, the country created a system to allow rapid approval of testing kits for viruses which have the potential to cause pandemics.

When the novel coronavirus emerged, that system allowed regulators to collaborate quickly with local biotech companies and researchers to develop testing kits based on a genetic sequence of the virus released by China in mid-January. Firms were then granted accreditation to make and sell the kits within weeks –a process that usually takes a year.

In a short space of time, South Korea has managed to test more than 140,000 people for the novel coronavirus, using kits with sensitivity rates of over 95%, according to the director of the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine.

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SOURCE: Bloomberg, Heejin Kim, Sohee Kim and Claire Che

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