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Why Testing is Crucial in the Fight against Covid-19

by  Dr Jong Dae Park, Ambassador of South Korea to South Africa

13 April 2020

Global Outlook of Covid-19

As of today, April 13, a total of 215 countries and territories worldwide have confirmed cases of Covid-19, with the infected global population reaching 1,854,009 and 114,301 losing their lives, while 427,828 have recovered. In January, Wuhan in China started out as the epicentre of Covid-19 eruption but about a month later, towards the end of February, South Korea saw unexpected surge in the infections signalling the possibility of Covid-19 becoming a global pandemic. Iran and Italy were the next to be hit seriously, and it spread rapidly to Spain and other European countries at an alarming rate. Covid-19 was a bit slow to reach the U.S. but the country has far outpaced other countries in the past weeks, showing the steepest curve upwards.

Meanwhile, so far, the confirmed cases is far lower in Africa compared to other continents, with South Africa registering the highest figure but as many health experts including WHO’s Director General say, there are potentially high risks in many African countries so extra precaution is called for in this region. Besides the dangers and deadliness of the virus due to its unique characteristics, by locking people down in their homes and virtually stopping the whole economy, regardless of whether the country is rich or poor, Covid-19 in effect poses a thoroughly universal and existential threat to the world that human kind has never experienced. The gravity of the consequences is such that Henry Kissinger on April 6 called for the new world order for the post Covid-19 era.                  

South Korea’s Case: the Importance of Test Kits and Testing

By early March, Korea’s confirmed number of cases on Covid-19 was second highest in the world but it was able to flatten the curve within just a matter of a week or so. Now Korea’s daily new cases stands at a few dozen at most. Presently, Korea’s accumulative confirmed cases number 10,537 (19th) and death toll 217 (28th). As far as Korean response is concerned, I think its success factors were the four elements: speed, intensity, transparency, and cooperation. And regarding speed, Korea’s preparation and usage of test kits and innovative methods of testing like drive-thru and walk-thru testing made a great difference in effectively tackling Covid-19 thus far.

Testing kits and the number of testing made all the difference. Korean test kits use ‘real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction)’ technique. In general, its diagnostic accuracy is over 95% and Korean products have achieved 98% accuracy, it is said. On the other hand, the rapid test kits using antibody and antigen testing methods, while they have       the advantage of showing the results quickly and being cheaper, have much lower accuracy rate.    

But the most important thing Korea did well and is praised by health experts internationally for, is the fact that the government has put in place in a timely fashion        a system that allowed massive production of test kits. This is a good reminder that speedy response is of the essence. In January, there were only Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and 17 public research labs scattered around the province that were able to conduct tests for Covid-19. But the government, on February 7, decided to greatly expand the number of testing bodies by approving private medical institutions to conduct Covid-19 tests upon speedy assessment of their abilities. Soon, the number of test centres increased to about 700 centres nationwide, bringing the capacity of tests per day up to 20,000.

What is to be noted is that South Korea learned very valuable lessons from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. When this epidemic ended, the government took a host of measures like requiring hospitals to increase the number of patients’ rooms, intensive care wards, emergency rooms, and isolation rooms. Each hospital was asked to set up units to combat new infectious diseases and formulate the necessary protocols. Also, regulations were revised to allow speedy authorization procedure for testing kits.
Need for Stronger International Collaboration

At a time like this, close international cooperation in terms of information sharing and distribution of technology and equipment is vital. President Moon Jae-in of Korea is getting telephone calls from so many leaders of the world who want to seek collaboration with Korea. Starting with President Xi Jingping of China in February 2020, a total of 22 heads of state (including UAE, Egypt, Turkey, France, Sweden, Spain, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Canada, Lithuania, Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Colombia, Vietnam, and others) had called President Moon in this regard thus far. Last week Bill Gates also made a call to President Moon and this week, Bono of U2 wrote a letter to the President requesting assistance for importation of Korean medical equipment. In the case of Morocco, the government sent a special flight to Korea to solely collect Korean medical equipment for Covid-19 while also providing a charter plane to Korea to evacuate Koreans there back home.  

WHO Director General has called President Moon to invite him to attend the upcoming WHO general assembly meeting (video conference) in May, to represent Asia; it was made known that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Ramaphosa of South Africa will also attend this meeting representing Europe and Africa respectively. This is all the more reason for South Korea and South Africa, both members of G20, to collaborate very closely, and Korea is open, and will wholeheartedly welcome any inquiries, ideas, and proposals from His Excellency President Ramaphosa and the South African government. 




February/March 2020








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