South Korea’s coronavirus testing spree is keeping its death rate low
03/08/2020 // Franz Walker // Views

With more than 5,700 confirmed cases, South Korea has the largest number of COVID-19 cases outside of China. Despite this, the country has a lower-than-average mortality rate while also not implementing the same draconian lockdown measures as the latter. Now, people are looking into South Korea’s massive testing spree as the possible key to stopping the virus.

To combat the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, South Korea hasn’t implemented travel restrictions on its citizens. Instead, the country is testing hundreds of thousands of people using everything from traditional clinics to drive-through testing stations.

So far, the efforts are working. Despite the lack of a lockdown, the confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in South Korea are confined mainly to Daegu, a city about 150 miles south of the capital Seoul. The country has even reported that the rate of new cases has dropped for three days in a row.

South Korea learned from MERS

Part of the reason South Korea can test so many people in a short amount of time is that it has a system in place which grants the rapid approval of testing kits. This was created in response to a previous epidemic, the 2015 outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The 2015 MERS outbreak killed 38 people in South Korea. Back then, the lack of proper testing kits for MERS meant that people ended up going from hospital to hospital seeking help. This resulted in the virus spreading widely throughout the country.

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 emerged, their new system allowed regulators to collaborate with researchers and local biotech companies to quickly develop testing kits based on a genetic sequence of the virus released by China in January. With this process, companies were able to get accreditation to manufacture and sell the kits, a process that usually takes a year, within a few weeks.


Thanks to this system of quickly getting test kits out, South Korea has managed to test more than 140,000 people for the SARS-CoV-2. More importantly, despite the rush, the kits produced through this system have sensitivity rates of over 95 percent, according to the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine.

What the rest of the world can learn from South Korea

South Korea’s containment of the outbreak number stands in contrast to efforts in other countries such as Japan and here in the United States. These countries are now facing the same issues faced by China early on, where issues with unreliable and inadequate testing led to thousands of infected patients not being quarantined until it was too late.

Compared to these other countries, South Korea’s testing frenzy means that the country knows where the infections are centered, allowing them to contain it better. Additionally, the emphasis on testing and diagnosis is being credited with helping patients get treatment early. This has allowed the country to bring the mortality rate from COVID-19 down to less than 1 percent. This is the lowest rate reported in any country except for Singapore, where the scale of the outbreak is much smaller.

The White House has already conceded that the country is lacking in testing kits.

“We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” admitted Vice President Mike Pence to reporters during a tour of 3M’s facilities in Minnesota.

Similarly, California governor Gavin Newsom also acknowledged that the country’s capacity for testing for the virus was “simply inadequate.” These statements are worrying in light of studies showing that the coronavirus may have been circulating within some communities for far longer than originally thought.

It looks like if the U.S. isn’t able to start testing more people sooner, then we may have a bigger fight on our hands than we thought.

Sources include:

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