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Wednesday, March 04, 2020, 15:30
S. Korea can try out makeshift hospitals, experts say
By YANG HAN in Hong Kong
Wednesday, March 04, 2020, 15:30 By YANG HAN in Hong Kong

Staff members check and arrange materials at the makeshift hospital in Wuhan's Qiaokou district, Central China's Hubei province on March 1, 2020. (KE HAO / FOR CHINADAILY.COM.CN)

Chinese student Jin hopes the novel coronavirus epidemic in the Republic of Korea will soon ease so she can return to school at Yonsei University in Seoul.

With the COVID-19 cases escalating to thousands from just around 30 in just two weeks in the ROK, her university postponed the start of the spring semester to March 16, two weeks later than the original date.

“There is a possibility it might affect my graduation,” said Jin, a freshman staying at a rented house in Seoul who just shared her last name. She goes out to buy groceries and necessities once every seven to 10 days.

It is estimated more than 300,000 Chinese students, or about 50 percent of the total, had not returned to school in South Korea, according to Yonhap, citing data released by South Korea’s Ministry of Education.

Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious disease at the Korea University Guro Hospital, said he believes the country will successfully tackle COVID-19 as it did with previous outbreaks like SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2018.

Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious disease at the Korea University Guro Hospital, said South Korea should consider building makeshift hospitals, similar to those built in Hubei province, to treat patients with COVID-19, though it is not possible for South Korea to lock down cities like China did with Wuhan and other cities in the province

Since the identification of a 61-year-old woman, known as “Patient 31” on Feb 18, the country has been conducting tests on all 212,000 members of the Shincheonji religious group, which are expected to bring the number of confirmed cases up in the coming days.

Kim said, “March will be the hardest time for (South) Korean people as well as the medical personnel.”

He said he hoped the government could roll out public health measures to quickly stop the spread of the coronavirus.

To contain the outbreak, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) designated Daegu and adjacent Cheongdo county as “special care zones”, while the organization planned to take “maximum” quarantine steps.

Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiology professor with the University of Hong Kong, the country could have many other infected cities “if the correct control measures are not put in place immediately”.

The country raised its virus alert to the highest level for the first time since the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 swine flu.

READ MORE: S. Korea infection tally at 3,150, Abe mulls US$2.5b in virus fight

Kim of Guro Hospital said “China has accomplished very effective control of the coronavirus outbreak in many prefectures other than Hubei,” noting strict measures in Beijing and Shanghai have helped to stop the further spread of the virus.

He said South Korea should consider building makeshift hospitals, similar to those built in Hubei province, to treat patients with COVID-19, though it is not possible for South Korea to lock down cities like China did with Wuhan and other cities in the province.

“I am not sure if our government will accomplish that kind of achievement in a short time,” said Kim, adding that the transformation of stadiums or exhibition centers into temporary hospitals could also be helpful.

The Chinese government has been in close contact with South Korea, ready to step up cooperation and provide assistance.

ALSO READ: S. Korea 'at war' with virus, India testing six in Agra

“In an epidemic, the sharing of information, of best practices for control … is important to help others,” said Jerome H Kim, director general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute (IVI), praising Chinese scientists who shared their knowledge of COVID-19 promptly and openly with others.

In terms of the research and development of a vaccine, IVI’s Kim said the publication of the sequence of the initial isolates of COVID-19 by Chinese scientists was important, as it gave vaccine developers around the world the opportunity to study the virus.

The novel coronavirus isolated by South Korean researchers from its first patient was largely similar to the one separated in China, IVI’s Kim said. Despite differences in sequence, it is likely that the viruses can be treated with the same vaccines, he added.

“Vaccine development against the new coronavirus is in a very early stage in South Korea,” said Song Man-ki, IVI’s deputy director general of science, adding that several institutes and vaccine companies started developing treatment using DNA vaccines, recombinant viruses and proteins.

IVI is currently working with different groups to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, but the institute said funding and high efficiency are required to bring it to testing before the epidemic changes or disappears.

Besides the sharing of information and best practices, IVI’s Kim said cooperation between South Korea and China during the epidemic can take place through ministries of health as well as cooperation in technology and other capabilities.

In addition, regulatory harmonization in the biotech sector should also be formed, “so that effective interventions can be rapidly shared”, he said.

As of March 2, over 80 countries and regions have introduced entry restrictions or quarantine procedures on travelers from South Korea, with 36 of them imposing or planning to impose an entry ban, according to Yonhap.

Noting that travel bans were “not appropriate”, Nicholas Thomas, associate professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, said only concern and observation should be warranted at this stage.

“The question of if a travel ban is advised is always a very fraught one, because in public health it’s a matter of balancing their risks of infection and more serious problems with other things, such as economic and social stability,” said Thomas.

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