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 February 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 US 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 US and UK, were a big part of why it was able to avoid more drastic measures.
Mapping the coronavirus outbreak across the world
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 US Food and Drug Administration, said in a Twitter post earlier this month. “The US 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 criticised 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).