SEOUL – Two weeks before China disclosed it was investigating a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan in late 2019 – what the world now knows as Covid-19 – South Korea’s top health officials gathered for a quarterly table-top exercise to plan their response to a theoretical health threat.
The hazard? A never-before-seen pathogen emerging in China that was causing a spike in pneumonia cases.
The timing was a fluke. But the war-gaming, and choice of subject, wasn’t. Korea had learned painful lessons from an outbreak just four years earlier of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or Mers. The country overhauled the way it responds to diseases, giving it a global edge when Covid hit.
In a world that’s trying to move on from the virus, even as it still kills thousands of people a day, Korean officials are once again reviewing their approach, seeking insights for the next pandemic – which they say could hit within a decade.
The foundations for Korea’s Covid-19 strategy, viewed as a global success for avoiding lockdowns and widespread deaths, lay in an excoriating 466-page audit report on the response by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) and other health authorities to the Mers crisis.
In its raft of criticisms, the document noted inadequate testing and isolation of Mers patients fueled the spread, as had deficiencies in information-sharing within the health-care system.
“We learned the importance of quickly finding patients and segregating those exposed to a virus before they show symptoms,” said Dr Kyong Ran Peck, commissioner at the KDCA, which oversees public health, including infectious diseases and vaccines.
Because of Mers, when Covid-19 appeared, Korea had already built a vast test-and-trace system that enabled officials to zero in on and contain outbreaks before they spread more widely.
Next threat may come sooner than we think
Still, the KDCA’s review of its Covid-19 response has unearthed shortfalls that will inform officials’ approach to the next health threat, which they say is likely to be a re...