In a carpark behind a hospital in Seoul, 45-year-old Rachel Kim rolls down her automotive window and stands out her tongue. She travelled to Daegu final week, the world with the best variety of coronavirus instances in South Korea.
Now she’s developed a foul cough and a fever. Fearing the worst, she determined to get a Covid-19 take a look at at one of many dozens of drive-through centres. Two individuals dressed head-to-toe in white protecting clothes, clear goggles and surgical face masks are prepared for her.
An extended swab stick is rummaged across the again of her mouth and throat after which positioned rigorously into a protracted take a look at tube.
Then comes the robust bit. The swab goes proper up her nostril. She screws up her eyes in discomfort, however the entire thing is over in minutes. She rolls up her automotive window and off she drives. She is going to get a name if the result’s constructive, or a textual content if it is damaging.
Unfavorable stress room
Rachel is considered one of almost 20,000 individuals being examined on daily basis for coronavirus in South Korea. Her pattern is shortly shipped off to close by laboratory the place employees are working 24 hours a day to course of the outcomes.
Within the battle to include the contagion, these labs have develop into the entrance line. South Korea has created a community of 96 private and non-private laboratories to check for coronavirus. The nation is testing extra individuals per capita than anyplace else on this planet.
Well being officers consider this method could also be saving lives. The fatality charge for coronavirus in South Korea is zero.7%. Globally the World Well being Group has reported three.four% – however scientists estimate that the demise charge is decrease as a result of not all instances are reported.
I turned up at Inexperienced Cross laboratories simply exterior Seoul as a brand new batch of samples arrived to be examined. Dr Oh Yejin gave us a tour till she stopped at a door and made it clear we weren’t allowed by.
“The exams are carried out on this damaging stress room,” she informed me. “It prevents any droplets from the samples escaping.”
Inside, two docs in vivid yellow protecting clothes are shifting across the sealed room. They elevate up numerous take a look at tubes and get to work.
Beside us dozens of machines are whirring away and processing outcomes. These are PCR (polymerase chain response) exams – in very fundamental phrases it’s trying to find the presence of Covid-19 within the pattern.
The entire course of from take a look at tube to check result’s about 5 to 6 hours.
Classes from Mers
Professor Gye Cheol Kwon, the chairman of the Laboratory Drugs Basis, calls this the Korean “bali bali” gene. Bali means fast in Korean. He says this as a result of the South Koreans managed to design and create a take a look at, arrange a community of labs throughout the nation and get all of it to work in 17 days.
However this has come from bitter expertise.
“We discovered the danger of recent an infection and its ramifications from the expertise of the Center East Respiratory syndrome (Mers) again in 2015,” he informed me. Thirty-six individuals died in South Korea through the Mers outbreak.
It pressured the nation to reassess its method to infectious ailments. South Korea’s Centres for Illness Management even arrange a particular division to arrange for the worst. On this case, that preparation seems to have paid off.
“I believe that early affected person detection with correct exams adopted by isolation can decrease the mortality charge and stop the virus from spreading,” mentioned Prof Kwon. “To study from the previous and put together programs prematurely… that may be the true energy to beat this new type of catastrophe.”
It had been fairly quiet for the workforce at Inexperienced Cross till early February when a affected person – now identified in South Korea as “affected person 31” – with no identified historical past of journey and no contact with earlier instances examined constructive for the virus.
She belonged to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a non secular sect with over 200,000 members. It led to a race to seek out the supply of the outbreak and hint everybody affected. South Korea’s labs had been put to the take a look at. Fatigue amongst employees has been a difficulty. Now they work shifts and Dr Oh tells me, delightedly, that she is lastly in a position to get some sleep.
There isn’t any scarcity of testing kits in South Korea. 4 corporations have been given approval to make them. It means the nation has the capability to check 140,000 samples per week.
Prof Kwon believes the accuracy of South Korea’s Covid-19 take a look at is round 98%. The flexibility to check so many individuals has made the nation a job mannequin as others look to battle their very own coronavirus outbreaks.
However there have been missteps too.
Not less than two sufferers died ready for a hospital mattress in Daegu, the worst affected metropolis. The preliminary response was to quarantine everybody contaminated with the virus in a hospital mattress, however now the docs have discovered to deal with these with gentle signs in residential centres and go away the medical beds for these needing vital care.
“We won’t quarantine and deal with all sufferers. Those that have gentle signs ought to keep dwelling and get handled,” Dr Kim Yeon-Jae, an infectious illness specialist from the Korea Nationwide Medical Centre informed me.
“We must always change our finish purpose technique to decrease demise charges. So different nations like Italy, that see big numbers in sufferers, must also change their methods as properly.”
Wherever the virus hits in giant numbers – makeshift take a look at centres comply with.
This week in Seoul, there was a mass an infection at a name centre. Medics arrange exterior and shortly took swabs from tons of of employees within the constructing.
The blood of recovered sufferers can also be being monitored and analysed. Scientists have developed a “distinctive” protein that may detect antibodies – the hope is that it’ll assist create a vaccine sooner or later.
One of many former sufferers present process weekly blood exams is Mr Lee. (He didn’t want to give his first identify). He was working in Wuhan, China in December when the virus struck town. He was flown dwelling by the South Korean authorities and examined constructive for Covid-19 whereas in quarantine close to Seoul.
His mum was upset.
“Individuals round me had been very nervous,” he mentioned. “I heard my mum cried each night time.”
However she didn’t want to fret. The 28-year-old solely had a light case of the virus.
“I felt high quality and virtually had no signs. Just a bit cough. Talking from my very own expertise, it is actually vital to nonetheless be cautious and protected, however I want individuals would have much less worry of the virus itself.
“For me at the very least, the virus felt weaker than a daily chilly. I do know those that are older should be cautious. However for younger individuals like me who’re wholesome, they should not be too nervous. After all, you will need to take preventive measures although.”
‘Higher to know’
The preventative measures being taken in South Korea have thus far concerned no lockdowns, no roadblocks and no restriction on motion.
Hint, take a look at and deal with is the mantra. To date this nation of over 50 million individuals have been doing their bit to assist. Colleges stay closed, workplaces are encouraging individuals to work at home, giant gatherings have stopped.
Nonetheless, slowly, day-to-day, extra persons are creeping again onto the streets of the capital metropolis, Seoul. Eating places, buses and subways are starting to get busy once more.
Coping with the specter of coronavirus is the brand new regular. Most individuals put on masks (if they’ll pay money for one). There are thermal imaging cameras within the entrances to main buildings.
Bottles of hand sanitisers have been positioned in lifts. There are even individuals wearing costumes at subway entrances reminding you to scrub your palms.
This can be the brand new regular for South Korea and elsewhere. However well being officers are nonetheless on edge and warning there isn’t any room for complacency. One giant outbreak at a church, workplace, train class or condo block can change all the things.
And as for Rachel Kim, she obtained a textual content the day after her take a look at. She would not have coronavirus. However she’s glad she obtained examined.
“Higher to know”, she mentioned, “and that manner I’m not a hazard to others.”
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Media caption‘We’re typically persecuted’: Spokesman for virus-hit S Korean church defends secrecy