The arrival of SARS-CoV-2 in South Korea and the resulting localized COVID-19 outbreak was inevitable because of its proximity to mainland China and the regular movements of tourists between these two countries. Sure enough, it soon became one of the earliest countries to report a significant level of COVID-19 outbreak after it announced its first confirmed case on 20 January 2020 and the number of cases swelled to 346 on February 21.
Confirmed cases increased further to more than ten thousand beginning April 2020. However, despite the case count, the COVID-19 response strategy of South Korea has been regarded as auspicious and effective due to a dramatic decline in new cases. When compared to the onset of the outbreak in mainland China and the experience of countries such as Italy, the South Korean government managed to slow down the transmission and provide adequate medical attention to infected individuals.
Factors Behind the Successful COVID-19 Response Strategy of South Korea: Mass Testing, Extensive Contact Tracing, and Rigid Quarantine Protocols
South Korea implemented a well-organized epidemic control program that revolves around mass and indiscriminate testing through molecular and serological testing, extensive contact tracing with the aid of mobile tracking technologies, and mandated quarantine protocols for those who have contact with anyone who tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Mass and Indiscriminate Testing Capabilities
Appreciating the Korean strategy requires understanding the role of mass testing in the successful COVID-19 response of the country. The Seoul-based biotechnology firm Seegene Inc. began developing a testing kit upon learning a brewing outbreak in China on 31 December 2019. The company introduced its Allplex 2019-nCoV Assay by the second week of January 2020.
Note that the Korean government summoned representatives from more than 20 local biotech companies in late January. By March, it already had approved the test kit from Seegene Inc. under an urgent-use license, along with other test kits developed by Kogene Biotech Co. Ltd., Sd Biosensor Inc., and Solgent Co.
The local biotech companies essentially equipped South Korea with mass testing capabilities. A report by the Wall Street Journal noted that it could test more than 20,000 individuals per day at 633 testing sites across the nation. Through this capability, the government can test a large portion of the population without following a strict set of criteria.
Technology-Enabled Extensive Contact Tracing
Another critical reason behind the success of the COVID-19 response strategy of South Korea is its extensive contact tracing. Through mass and indiscriminate testing, authorities were able to diagnose symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. Effective diagnosis allowed them to identify others who came into contact with individuals who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained that it also utilizes novel investigation techniques for verifying the claims made by patients about their encounters. These include using medical facility records, global positioning system, credit card transactions, and closed-circuit cameras to track the previous routes of a particular patient.
Separate reports from Nature and Science also added that the South Korean government is using wireless communication technologies not only for contact tracing but also for warning people. Specifically, whenever someone tests positive, the city or district sends out an alert to people living nearby. The alert contains a detailed log of movements of the infected person.
Government-Mandated Quarantine Protocols
The government has also devised rigid and systematic quarantine protocols as a collective preventive measure based on the severity of COVID-19 symptoms or clinical presentation. Note that high-risk patients with comorbidities are prioritized for hospitalization, while those with moderate symptoms are directed to repurposed and makeshift facilities provided by the private sector.
For patients with minimal symptoms and those who came into contact with individuals positive for SARS-CoV-2, authorities require them to undergo self-quarantine for two weeks. Local monitoring teams call these individuals twice a day to check their symptoms and make sure they follow the mandated quarantine protocol.
Another purpose of mass and indiscriminate testing and contact tracing is to find asymptomatic individuals for isolation. Because these individuals carry the highly contagious coronavirus, it is critical to isolate them before they spread the infection unknowingly. Once identified, they are placed under quarantine for observation and future testing.
Other Factors Behind the Success of South Korea in Controlling COVID-19: Healthcare Capabilities, Border Control, and Information
Compared with the response of mainland China, South Korea did not implement strict lockdown measures. Its strategy is somewhat similar to the COVID-19 response of Taiwan. However, it differs from these equally successful countries because it highlights the importance of mass testing, contact tracing, and individual quarantine protocol.
The Korean strategy complements the Korean healthcare system. Learning from its controversial MERS-CoV response in 2015, the country is now capable of responding to epidemics more effectively. Authorities were quick to equipping hospitals with infection control units and negative pressure rooms upon the arrival of COVID-19.
Another reason why South Korea has been successful in containing COVID-19 revolves around open information and public participation. In her interview with BBC, foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha explained that a demanding public that expects the highest standards of services is a crucial driver behind the prompt and relevant response of the South Korean government.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- 2020, March 15. “Coronavirus: South Korea Seeing a Stabilizing Trend.” BBC. Available online
- 2020, April 5. “How One Firm’s Covid-19 Tests Help Control the Virus in South Korea.” Forbes. Available online
- Korea Centers for Disease Control Prevention. 2020. “Contact Transmission of COIVD-19 in South Korea: Novel Investigation Techniques for Tracing Contacts.” Osong Public Health and Response Perspectives. 11(1): 60-63. DOI: 24171/j.phrp.2020.11.1.09
- Lee, G. 2020. “South Korea Approves First Four COVID019 Test Kits Under Urgent-Use License.” BioWorld. Available online
- Servick, K. 2020. “Cellphone Tracking Could Help Stem the Spread of Coronavirus: Is Privacy the Price?” Science. DOI: 1126/science.abb8296
- Yoon, D. & Martin, T. W. 2020, March 16. “How South Korea Put Into Place the World’s Most Aggressive Coronavirus Testing.” The Wall Street Journal. Available online
- Zastrow, M. 2020. “South Korea is Reporting Intimate Details of COVID-19 Cases: Has it Helped?” Nature. DOI: 1038/d41586-020-00740-y