Caixin
Feb 24, 2020 09:22 PM
WORLD

South Korea Coronavirus Epidemic Soars Past 800 Cases

Outbreaks in Daegu and Cheongdo, linked to some three-quarters of South Korea’s cases, have both been connected to a 61-year-old member of Shincheonji who has been dubbed a “super spreader.” Photo: CCTV
Outbreaks in Daegu and Cheongdo, linked to some three-quarters of South Korea’s cases, have both been connected to a 61-year-old member of Shincheonji who has been dubbed a “super spreader.” Photo: CCTV
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A swelling coronavirus cluster among members of a shadowy Christian sect has propelled the number of diagnosed cases in South Korea beyond 830, up from just 30 at the start of last week, while thousands of soldiers have been isolated for medical observation.

South Korea has now recorded seven deaths from the respiratory illness dubbed Covid-19, and more diagnoses than any other country outside China, excluding those in Japan that spread within the confines of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Three-fifths of South Korea’s caseload has been linked to a secretive Christian group called Shincheonji — translated as “new heaven and land” — which has now come under intense scrutiny from authorities and the press.

Data released by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Korea (KCDC) shows cases (link in Korean) linked to the Shinchoenji group have appeared in at least ten cities including Seoul, Busan, and Incheon.

KCDC has urged (link in Korean) anyone who attended a Shincheonji service this month, or had close contact with someone who did, to self-isolate and monitor themselves for signs of fever and respiratory distress.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in upped the nation's infectious disease crisis warning to its highest level (link in Korean) on Sunday in what health authorities called a preemptive measure against the possible nationwide spread of Covid-19. Residents of Daegu — the nation’s fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million — and those have visited the Daegu area, have been told to self-isolate for at least two weeks.

Authorities reported two deaths today, both at a hospital in the town of Cheongdo, 27 kilometers (16 miles) away from Daegu, which has been linked to more than 110 cases and now five deaths.

The Daegu and Cheongdo outbreaks, which are linked to some three-quarters of South Korea’s cases, have both been connected to a 61-year-old member of Shincheonji — the country's 31st case — who has been dubbed a “super spreader.” Health officials believe the woman attended several church services as well as visited the hospital in Cheongdo.

Shincheonji worshippers are said to sit on the floor and sing with their arms around each other’s shoulders for hours at their services, which officials believe may have helped spread the disease.

Complicating the picture, the brother of Shincheonji’s religious leader died at the Cheongdo hospital at the end of January, and a funeral service was held there from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, attracting many in the sect aside from the 61-year-old woman dubbed “Case 31.”

Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health security expert at the University of Sydney, said it was “alarming” that so many people associated with Shincheonji were infected so rapidly because it meant the virus was highly contagious. But on the other hand, the fact that South Korea’s cases have generally clustered around the group could make containing them easier.

“Unless we see further localized community transmission in South Korea, then that cluster of cases could conceivably be contained,” Kamradt-Scott said. “The fact they were able to identify it, that they’ve been able to put in place measures to try and isolate those people, that may be the end of that spread in South Korea at the moment.”

He said reports of community transmission in Italy and Iran were more concerning, and could give cause for the WHO to label the virus a pandemic if borne out by evidence.

The KCDC added 70 cases at 4 p.m. on Monday, 41 of which were in Daegu, but the new release did not indicate how many were connected with Shincheonji.

At a media briefing on Feb. 24, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said South Korea should have initially prevented Chinese nationals from entering the country in the way other countries had — and to do so now would be too late.

But Kamradt-Scott said closing the borders would have been a mistake.

“Border closures have historically been proved ineffective at stopping viruses, and that’s principally because people become very inventive in order to circumvent travel bans and border closures,” he told Caixin.

The virus has also spread to the South Korean military, which has recorded 11 cases, according to a statement from the Ministry of Defense on Monday. The first was a soldier returning to the Jeju naval base after taking leave in Daegu.

Some 7,700 Korean soldiers have been isolated for observation amid concerns about further spread in their close quarters.

According to the South Korean government, 10 of 39 Koreans who returned from a trip to Israel on Feb. 8 to 16 have been infected. Given that there is no known community transmission in Israel, the group, who are residents of an area near Daegu, are believed to have picked the disease up in South Korea.

Over the border, North Korea’s state media reported Monday that the country has quarantined about 380 foreigners (link in Chinese). No information on the identity of the people was released but they are believed to mainly be diplomats and foreign trade officials.

Contact reporter Flynn Murphy (flynnmurphy@caixin.com) and editor Joshua Dummer (joshuadummer@caixin.com)

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