The Virus Hunter Showing the World How to Fight an Epidemic
(Bloomberg) -- As South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak risked veering out of control, with infections rising thirty-fold in just ten days last month, the country’s health authorities got an unexpected break. The secretive religious sect whose meetings were early vectors for spreading the virus had agreed to disclose the names of all 212,000 members -- critical information for figuring out where it would appear next.
The deal was brokered, in part, by Jung Eun-kyeong, the head of Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose management of the response has made her something of a national hero, and a potential role model for virus-fighters elsewhere. Since the agreement with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus on Feb. 25, South Korea has tested more than 320,000 people, a diagnostic blitzkrieg that’s brought the daily tally of new infections to less than 100, compared with more than 900 two weeks ago.
A former small-town doctor who was deeply involved with the response to a 2015 epidemic of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome that killed 38 in Korea, Jung’s daily briefings have become must-see TV for many citizens. Social media buzzes with praise for her straightforward approach to pandemic communications: tell the public exactly what’s going on, but without over-promising about what’s possible.
“There is nobody who can do the job better than Jung in this situation,” said former CDC director Jung Ki-suck, who’s now a professor at Hallym University Medical Center. (He and the current director are unrelated.) “This job can’t be done just with knowledge. She has experience of past outbreaks. She knows what can be done and what can’t.”
Although it was one of the first countries outside of China to experience a large-scale epidemic, Korea’s response has been measured compared with the U.S. and Europe. Cities aren’t locked down, many workplaces remain open, and school is likely to resume in early April. The CDC’s aggressive early actions, centered on an enormous but focused testing operation that’s moved far faster than efforts in the U.S. and U.K., were a big part of why it was able to avoid more drastic measures.
Starting with church members in Daegu, the city about 150 miles of Seoul where Korea’s outbreak has been centered, officials systematically widened testing efforts to other members who had been in contact with them.
Korea’s experience may provide a playbook for how to turn around a seemingly out-of-control epidemic in a country that’s neither governed by an authoritarian regime, like China, nor a compact city-state, like Singapore.
“Perhaps no other country with epidemic spread has been as effective as South Korea at broad-based testing and mitigation, backed by great health care,” Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a Twitter post earlier this month. “The U.S. should heed lessons now from the steps they’ve taken.”
The last time Jung was part of a team charged with fighting an outbreak, the results were less positive. After working as a family doctor in Yangju, a town on the outskirts of Seoul, she joined the national health ministry as a researcher in 1995, and was promoted to running its emergency-care department during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, which sickened 750,000 South Koreans. She was appointed as the head of the CDC’s disease-prevention center just as MERS hit six years later.
The CDC was widely criticized for its handling of MERS, which is far more lethal but less contagious than Covid-19 -- particularly over whether it provided enough information to an anxious public. In some cities, for example, officials discovered that MERS patients had been transferred to local hospitals without any official notification from the agency.
A government probe followed, with some lawmakers calling for the CDC’s top ranks to be fired. That didn’t happen, but according to local media reports at the time, Jung and other officials had to take pay cuts. In 2016, though, she was put in charge of a new unit responsible for coordinating the government response to future outbreaks, before being named to the agency’s top job the following year.
This time, the CDC moved quickly. A system put in place after the MERS crisis saw testing kits created by local biotech companies and researchers approved within weeks, a process that typically takes a year. The agency is also communicating more.
In January -- before the virus had really even taken hold in Korea -- Jung began holding twice-daily briefings, disclosing, among other things, the places that patients visited before they were admitted to hospital. (They’ve since been reduced to one per day). Smartphone users in the vicinity of those locations then receive alerts providing even more detailed information.
“Our disclosure of information is based on the principle that we let people know the information that they must know,” Jung said in one of her briefings.
But it’s the approach to testing that’s given Korea its edge. The country approved its first coronavirus test on Feb. 4, just 16 days after the initial domestic case was confirmed. By Feb. 27, four different companies were manufacturing test kits, allowing the authorities to process as many as 20,000 people a day. Jung’s teams, meanwhile, worked on novel methods of administering the tests, from drive-through centers to compact stations that look like phone booths.
The CDC declined a request from Bloomberg News for an interview with Jung, saying she doesn’t have time to focus on anything other than fighting the virus. An employee of the agency, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, confirmed local media reports that she’s been in its emergency-operations center essentially around the clock for weeks, leaving only to visit a food truck parked outside or to take a quick nap.
Jung “has done this job a long time, and knows the system better than anyone else,” said Ki Moran, a professor at the National Cancer Center who’s been acquainted with her for more than 20 years. Still, she said Koreans need to remember that Jung is the most public-facing member of a much larger effort. “I hope the media doesn’t depict Jung as a hero,” Ki added. “She’s great. But if an organization is driven by only one or two heroes, that’s a risky system.”
Like every country affected by the pandemic, Korea isn’t out of the woods yet. New cases in both Singapore and Hong Kong have jumped over the last few days, driven largely by patients who had recently arrived from overseas -- a reminder of the importance of uninterrupted vigilance. Health experts have warned that this virus could come in multiple waves.
For many Koreans, though, just seeing Jung on television has been an important part of feeling like things are more or less under control. Some have set up fan sites, or suggested that, when the dust settles, she should be appointed prime minister. Others have expressed concern over whether she’s getting enough rest. During a recent press briefing, a Korean reporter asked Jung about the truth of a rumor circulating online that she sleeps less than an hour each night.
“More than an hour,” she corrected him, before moving on to the next question.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.