The post on January 18 described the program the U.S. government is implementing to send four Covid-19 antigen rapid tests to each residence. Bravo! This action is welcomed but probably deserves to be filed under the category “Too Little, Too Late.”
In early 2020 when public health authorities realized that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a major worldwide problem, testing (in combination with other measures) was identified as one of the most effective weapons in the anti-pandemic arsenal.
For reasons unknown, fast and accurate Covid tests have never been developed and deployed to good effect in the United States. The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) is another story.
In spite of becoming the second most infected country after China by March 2020, the ROK has since achieved great success in protecting its people from Covid-19. The ROK Ministry of Health and Welfare published the chart below. It contains much information on the current status of the pandemic in South Korea and the world.
For purposes of this discussion, the chart’s most telling stats are that, as of January 20, 2022, South Korea has recorded only 6,480 Covid deaths total in the entire pandemic and is currently experiencing less than 5,000 daily new infections in the Omicron surge. South Korea has a population of just over 51 million people.
In comparison, statistics for my country, with a population of about 325 million, reveal that to date we have suffered more than 850,000 Covid deaths and 68 million infections. Current seven-day averages in the U.S. are about about 750,000 daily infections and 2,000 daily deaths. The situation is just as gloomy for many other prosperous countries.
Public Health Blocking and Tackling
There isn’t much mystery behind the ROK’s record in dealing with Covid. Much of the success in addressing the current pandemic was informed by lessons learned from the response to the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. That outbreak taught the ROK the value of employing basic public-health tools and preparing for a pandemic before it strikes.
South Korea’s approach is explained in detail in an article by Shuren, Jeffrey and Stenzel, Timothy, “South Korea’s Implementation of a Covid-19 National Testing Strategy” Health Affairs, 25 May 2021. Instead of twiddling its thumbs and claiming the virus would eventually “just go away,” South Korea took action immediately.
It implemented a comprehensive, government-led core strategy comprised of three elements: testing, tracing, and treatment. The strategy:
- invested in commercial development of diagnostic tests for infectious diseases prior to the COVID-19 outbreak;
- reduced risk for manufacturers by guaranteeing the purchase of minimum quantities of tests and reimbursement once the tests were authorized;
- streamlined test evaluation by creating a capability in selected government laboratories to evaluate commercial manufacturer tests and studies during the process for obtaining emergency use authorization;
- developed a centrally coordinated, nationwide testing program that relied upon a limited number of authorized tests using non-proprietary systems commercially manufactured in high volumes; and last but not least
- established an automated system that collects and analyses personal data that reduced the time required for contact tracing from 24 hours to 10 minutes per case.
Testing and tracing has been an effective tool for South Korea to contain the COVID-19 outbreak because it has been combined with other important measures including a self-quarantine program, mask wearing, social distancing, selective, temporary business closures, and an effective communications strategy.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has studied South Korea’s response and published this report: “South Korea’s Response to COVID-19.” Curiously, the report omits any discussion of using the findings to improve the Covid-19 response in the U.S. and to my knowledge, there have been no recommendations to prepare for the next pandemic — colossal failures in my view.
In the west, we have been promised salvation through high-tech vaccines and expensive treatments. Vaccines are vey helpful in preventing deaths and serious illness once people are infected. I’m thankful we have them. However, vaccines should never have been viewed as the route out of the Covid-19 wilderness. A significant portion of the population refuses to be vaccinated and even vaccinated individuals can spread the virus and get sick.
Here in the U.S., we are approaching the Super Bowl – the annual championship game of American football, our most popular professional sport. The struggle with Covid is somewhat analogous to American football. Teams spend enormous amounts of time and energy drawing up elaborate offensive and defensive schemes and analyzing the schemes of opponents. In reality, all that fancy analysis and effort depends on the players’ ability to execute the fundamentals of the game – blocking and tackling.
Similarly, a country’s success in fighting the virus that causes Covid depends on its ability to follow well-known, comparatively inexpensive fundamentals of public health such as testing and contact tracing more than on untried high-tech solutions.
For you enjoyment (if you hadn’t heard the song enough) here’s PSY kicking it Gangnam style on YouTube music video. Oppa Gangnam Style!
What are your thoughts on the best way to get out of the pandemic? Thanks for visiting and taking the time to read.