(CNN)South Korea has been widely praised as a Covid-19 success story. How did they do it? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to CNN reporter Paula Hancocks in Seoul about how South Korea has learned to live with the virus.
Lessons from South Korea: Dr. Sanjay Gupta's coronavirus podcast for June 24
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Al Jazeera: As the coronavirus pandemic keeps spreading, how is it that South Korea seems to have controlled it, and why is the United States so far behind?
CBS: "Test, trace, treat" has been South Korea's mantra.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: South Korea has been widely praised for how they handled the spread of the coronavirus. As of today, there are fewer than 300 deaths — that's a huge deal when you compare it to the United States, where we have over 120,000 deaths. Now even if you take the different populations into account, this means that one in every 100,000 people in South Korea's population died from the virus. In the United States, it's 37 out of every 100,000.
It's even more striking when I tell you that South Korea and the United States announced their first confirmed cases of Covid-19 just one day apart in January. And by February, South Korea had the largest outbreak in the world outside of China.
But by April the number of new cases were down to single digits, and life in South Korea started to go back to normal — schools even started reopening in May.
But then clusters of infections started to pop up again. More than 100 cases were linked to a nightclub in Seoul.
France24: Today the country is bracing for a second wave of infections. This after new spikes in coronavirus cases linked to Seoul's nightlife, which now threaten the densely populated capital.
Gupta: Just this week, Korean health officials acknowledged that the country was now in the middle of a second wave.
But still there are so many things we can learn from South Korea. How did they control the outbreak without a national lockdown? And what does all of this mean for the country as it goes through the second wave?
I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. And this is "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction."
Paula Hancocks, CNN international correspondent: The government responded very quickly. It was a swift response. There's no doubt about that. And that is what has allowed this country to cope so well with this pandemic.
Gupta: That's my colleague CNN International Correspondent Paula Hancocks, who's based in Seoul. She covers South Korea and has been following the country's Covid-19 response. I spoke to her this week about why the country has been so effective at containing the virus.
Hancocks: So the first case was on January 20. And then just several days later, the government and health officials decided to get some of the biotech companies together. So there's more than 20 of them. They got in a room together and said there is a potential for this to become an epidemic, a pandemic. We need to start thinking about how to test for this.
Now, that was incredibly early compared to many other countries. In fact, there was one company, Seegene, who started working on it, on testing and diagnostic tests, before there had been a single case in South Korea when it was still considered to be a Chinese problem.
Gupta: Paula, why do you think that was, that even before there was a case, they were already working on some of these — these plans? Was this because of lessons that were learned from — from SARS?
Hancocks: South Korea has been through this before. You mentioned SARS. They also had MERS back in 2015. And the response was not great to those particular viruses. South Korea made mistakes. Lives were lost and lessons were definitely learned.
And the lessons they have learned is that you test massively and you test early so you know what you're dealing with so that you can try and contain the virus. Another thing they did learn from MERS was that the privacy laws, as in many other countries, were fairly rigid. So it was difficult to trace. It would take up to 48 hours to try and trace where one particular patient had been. And of course, by that point, that virus has then spread to others.
They've loosened the privacy laws. It was a bipartisan decision in 2015. And it now takes something between 10 and 20 minutes to be able to trace where someone has been because they don't have the strict privacy laws that other countries do.
Gupta: And people are generally OK with that or is there resistance to, you know, kind of being, being tracked in this way, knowing where people are?
Hancocks: I would say for the most part, people are OK with it because they understand the necessity. That is the impression that I have. I come from a Western background. I'm British. And people would balk at this in the UK.
But here in South Korea, because of the experience of MERS, because of the experience of SARS, there is a greater tolerance for this information to be taken.
Gupta: You know, I've spent some time in Korea in the past, but also in China and in Taiwan. And there are places that are sort of, I guess you'd say, mask-wearing cultures. What about in Korea? I'm talking before this pandemic. What was the attitude, if you know, toward masks?
Hancocks: Masks were very much accepted. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for that is because the air quality over recent years in Korea has been pretty bad. So it had become the norm to wear a mask, an N95, on a day when pollution was particularly high but there was also an expectation that if you were sick, that you would wear a mask, that you wouldn't infect people around you. It just, it was considered rude that you would subject people to your germs.
Gupta: I want to talk about testing a little bit more here. In the beginning, what did testing look like? How widespread was it?
Hancocks: This was one of the main policies of health officials here that testing should be widespread, that it should be free. So very early on, there were thousands of tests being done here when there was barely anything being done in many other countries around the world.
There were very quick test kits that would take six, eight hours before you had an answer. There were drive-through testing screening centers, which, of course, has the added bonus of not having to mix potential patients with the hospital community.
Gupta: Have you been tested?
Hancocks: I have not been tested. I did have to take my 4-year-old to be tested early on in the pandemic. She spiked a fever. So we went to the hospital. Within an hour of arriving, we'd had a health questionnaire. She'd had a chest scan. She had been tested for influenza, for also for Covid-19. We were then sent home.
And eight hours later, we got a text message saying she was negative. It was the smoothest process I have ever seen, and much as I did not want to have to put her through that because it's not a pleasant test, it, it was very reassuring.
Gupta: Let me talk for a minute about contact tracing. How does contact tracing work there?
Hancocks: For contact tracing, as soon as an individual tests positive for the virus, they are then put into a hospital, a facility to recover. Instantly, their mobile phone number is taken. Their credit card number. CCTV footage is used, GPS coordinates. All that is put into a system that South Korea has developed over the years. And within 10 to 20 minutes, they have the exact whereabouts of that person for previous days.
Now they, were at pains to say to me that this technology is not complex. The complicated part is the the privacy laws, they don't have to adhere to the tough privacy laws that, for example, health officials in the United States or the United Kingdom might have to. And they say that that is the difference. That is why they're able to, to trace people so quickly.
Gupta: So people who were diagnosed with the virus and going into isolation would likely do so in a hospital or clinic-type setting. People who were quarantined, again, suspicious because they may have come in contact with somebody, were presumably told to go home and quarantine within their own home. Is that right?
Hancocks: It was really the, the confirmed cases that will go into a hospital or would go into a government facility. Self-isolation, if you have an address in, in Seoul or in Korea, you can self-isolate at home.
There have been cases of some individuals breaking the self-isolation, breaking the quarantine. There's one example of an individual who's a private academy tutor. He was at one of the nightclubs in Seoul. He did not come clean about having a job. He said he was unemployed and then went back to the private academy, taught a number of students and infected a number of students.
Now, there is likely to be prosecution against him because he was not open and because he withheld information. And that will be publicized quite heavily by the government. They want people to know that there is accountability for this.
Gupta: That's, that's really extraordinary. They've really tried to enforce this whole process that we're talking about. I mean, it's not perfect, as you're as you're alluding to. But they tried to be pretty, pretty strict about it, it sounds like.