In May, when a coronavirus outbreak occurred in nightclubs in the South Korean capital of Seoul, health officials quickly released their version of the Navy Seals – elite teams of epidemiologists, database specialists, and laboratory technicians.
An examination of old-school shoe leather found that the virus had jumped from a nightclub visitor to a student, a taxi driver, and then alarmingly to a warehouse worker who had worked with 4,000 others.
Thousands of employees of the employee, their family members and contacts were addressed and finally 9,000 people were tested. Two weeks later, the camp flames were largely extinguished and infections reduced to 152.
The work of such so-called immediate reaction teams offers a look at how South Korea – once the second worst affected by the corona virus – has managed to largely suppress its spread without the barriers that have derailed life worldwide. At a time when cities from Los Angeles to Melbourne to Tokyo are struggling with resurrection, South Korea's playbook offers one of the most successful blueprints for containing an illness that has killed more than 600,000 people worldwide.
The number of new cases in the Asian country that pioneered the Test-Blitz strategy has never dropped to zero, but the number of new cases every day largely ranged between 30 and 60 for two months after a peak of more than 800 in February . Compare that to Los Angeles County, which added 2,014 cases on Thursday alone.
South Korea's strategy is also in contrast to the hard shutdowns initiated in parts of China or the New Zealand tourism blockade to completely eradicate the virus. The Asian nation meticulously targets dangerous hotspots and then simply allows most people to live and conduct business freely.
"We intervene when there is a possibility of large-scale transmission, and our main task is to find the links between the cases and prevent them from flaring up," said Kwon Donghyok, deputy scientific director of the Centers for Control and Prevention of Diseases of the country that oversees the surveillance of the investigative teams. "Finding potential contacts and examining the cause of infection are the backbone of our actions."
The country now has one of the lowest rates for infections of unknown origin, at around 8%, compared to more than 50% for other countries with recent virus reruns. Flareups have shrunk from a weekly average of around a dozen to less than six this week.
South Korea has a successful strategy because it has learned from past bitter experiences that western countries have not benefited from. The majority of the more than 14,000 cases and nearly 300 deaths are related to the flare-up of a religious sect in February and March. Since then, processes developed after the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015 have helped prevent a second wave of the new coronavirus.
The South Korean CDC has about 100 epidemiological investigators, only two during the MERS outbreak. During a major potential outbreak, several are drawn for the immediate response team, which typically has about six to eight members.
Every day, officials examine potential relapses in various locations, from church group gatherings to badminton or exotic car clubs. Infections in low-risk facilities are first treated by local health authorities, while an immediate response team is consulted for high-risk locations.
Other nations have also taken steps to track down contacts and expand tests. Countries like Taiwan and Germany have successfully searched for the virus. But some have had more difficulty lately. Melbourne infections reached a record high this month as their efforts were unsuitable for the migrant population. India has had some success in tracking contacts and containing an outbreak in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. However, it has proven difficult to repeat this in a country with 1.3 billion inhabitants.
"The main strength of South Korea's management of the coronavirus pandemic is the ability to conduct a thorough epidemiological examination of each patient," said Jung Ki-Suck, former CDC director and now professor at Hallym University Medical Center, referring to the extensive public Health surveillance carried out by officials. "Epidemiological research has never been more important because we can reduce the size of outbreaks and even prevent new cases from occurring."
This comprehensive and careful investigative strategy paid off when investigators were able to track the camp outbreak after flaring up in nightclubs in the trendy Itaewon district, said Kwon, who investigated the MERS outbreak and was in Rio de Janeiro, to determine the possible outbreak of the Zika examine virus during the 2016 Olympic Games.
The CDC discovered that a nightclub visitor who was a private tutor had spread the virus to one of his students. The student, who was unaware of the infection, used a coin-operated karaoke room and transmitted the virus to a taxi driver who was singing in an adjoining room.
The taxi driver also worked as a part-time photographer, taking pictures of a birthday party in a buffet restaurant in the area where the distribution center is located.
The investigators contacted everyone who was in the restaurant at the time of the birthday party via surveillance material and cell phone recordings. Among those who were infected in the restaurant was a woman who had worked in the camp for a day.
However, it could be difficult to repeat some of the tactics used in South Korea with around 51 million inhabitants in densely populated emerging countries. And the Asian country has benefited from surveillance technologies that may not be acceptable to citizens of many western nations.
In order to track down potential contacts in South Korea, hundreds of hours of surveillance camera material had to be checked and transactions carried out with cell phones and credit cards. So-called CCTVs are ubiquitous in South Korea because they are found on practically all streets and workplaces.
"Other countries are simply unable to perform this thorough patient screening," said Jung, the former CDC director. "We have had fewer absolute cases than other nations, but more importantly, the social norm in which people agree that their privacy is violated for reasons of broader public interest has enabled extensive research to be carried out in Western countries Countries are simply inconceivable. "
South Korea has announced that construction workers who have returned from the virus will see an increase in Iraq and a Russian ship in one of its ports. While most of the cases are imported and brought in from outside, the South Korean Virus Commission knows how low their profits are and how important vigilance is. Many countries, including the Asian financial capital, Hong Kong, have successfully struck back the virus for months just to make a sudden comeback.
"All of the mass infections that we have seen have happened in no time," said Kwon. "If we miss a tiny piece of a link or let a small detail pass by, in some cases we will definitely see a resurgence."
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)