Seven new cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed in Korea in just two days, which brings the number of confirmed cases to 11, including the first Korean female patient. One of the new patients has been reportedly infected while eating meal with a confirmed patient, which is the first case of human transmission of the disease in Korea. Against this backdrop, we cannot rule out the possibility that additional case occurs within patients’ family. Critics raise concern that local transmission of the viral disease may have already started.
More worrying is that there are reported cases of “mystery patients,” which broke the common sense about the coronavirus. A case of “asymptotic” infection has been reported in Japan following China. In the case of SARS or MERS, the coronavirus had been transmitted from a patient who displayed symptoms including fever, and was thus preventable when the symptomatic patient was properly quarantined. If a patient without symptoms infects other people,, prevention can be much more challenging.
Some experts even claim that the novel viral pneumonia can be transmitted airborne, as well as through droplets. The World Health Organization declared Wuhan pneumonia as a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday, because more than 100 cases have already been confirmed in 18 countries apart from China, while cases of secondary infection have been confirmed in the U.S., Japan, Germany and Vietnam. If local transmission of the new coronavirus occurs concurrently in different continents, the world could face a pandemic.
South Korea’s quarantine and disease prevention system has been adjusted and improved since the 2015 MERS epidemics, whose infections mostly occurred within hospitals. The latest Wuhan coronavirus reportedly has a lower fatality rate than MERS, but is far more transmissible given that it is suspected of possible transmission through an asymptomatic patient. As such, the Korean health authority should preemptively enhance quarantine and control policy. Given the possibility of transmission from an asymptotic patient, the government should significantly broaden the scope of people deemed to have been in contact with patients, and track all of them to check for possible infection. The government, with the KCDC as the focal point, should be proactively supportive so that quarantine officials can promptly and flexibly respond to the characteristics of China’s new coronavirus by banking on expertise and creativity.
A Korean Air chartered plane with 368 Koreans onboard from Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, arrived in Korea on Friday morning amid anxiety over possible secondary infection in Korea. After going through additional quarantine inspection, 350 people who did not show any symptoms have been directly sent to quarantine facilities in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province. The health authorities should thoroughly manage the situation to ensure that no additional infection can occur among the quarantined people. Only then will local residents in the surrounding areas be relieved of anxiety, while local transmission of the disease can be prevented.