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Experts Credit South Korea's Extensive Testing For Curbing Coronavirus Spread


The U.S. has yet to institute widespread testing for the coronavirus. South Korea has, and it demonstrates what an effective testing regime can accomplish. Until this week, the country had the largest number of infections outside of China. But new cases have declined in recent days. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, experts credit the country's fast and extensive virus testing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We are now at one of four drive-through testing centers set up by the Seoul municipal government, and a silver Mercedes sedan has just rolled up the hill. And the car has stopped, and medical personnel in white protective suits and goggles are now testing the driver. A driver named Kim Soo-jeong explains why she chose this drive-through center.

KIM SOO-JEONG: (Through interpreter) At public health centers, there's a risk of cross-infection. Here you can get tested in your car, so it feels more convenient and safe.

KUHN: In a tent next to the testing stations, we speak to Dr. Liu Jaehong, who's on his lunch break. He says he can test twice the number of patients at the drive-through centers. And because it's safer, both doctors and patients feel less stress.

LIU JAEHONG: (Through interpreter) It takes at least 10 minutes to disinfect the waiting room between visitors. But here, because testees stay in their car, we don't need that process, and the air circulates naturally.

KUHN: Anyone can request a test. To get one, you have to be running a fever and the doctor believes you're at risk based on where you've been or whom you've contacted. He or she collects samples from your nose and throat and sends them off for analysis. The drive-through test takes 10 minutes or less. You usually get a text message with results the next day, and it's free. Experts say there is no substitute for testing, in a car or elsewhere.

ERIC FEIGL-DING: Testing's the cornerstone of stopping an epidemic at the beginning because testing isolates who someone may have infected and who around them may have been exposed and need to be quarantined.

KUHN: Eric Feigl-Ding is a senior fellow and epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. He notes that South Korea is now testing 15,000 people a day, with a maximum capacity of 22,000.

FEIGL-DING: In terms of per capita testing, Korea has run 3,600 tests per 1 million population. In contrast, U.S. has just run five tests per 1 million people.

KUHN: His conclusion...

FEIGL-DING: I think Korea has done a great job. United States has not.

KUHN: But South Korea did not build up its testing capacity overnight. Professor Lee Hyukmin of the Yonsei University College of Medicine in Seoul says that in recent years, the government has expanded testing capacity by working with the private sector.

LEE HYUKMIN: (Through interpreter) In South Korea, private institutions account for 90% of the medical system and 90% of our testing capacity. So we needed the support of the private sector.

KUHN: South Korea now has nearly 8,000 COVID-19 cases. And while new ones are still emerging, the rate of increase has been slowing since February 29. He says that had South Korea had been slower to test people, there could be tens or hundreds of thousands of cases and far more deaths.

LEE: (Through interpreter) South Korea has a significantly lower mortality rate from COVID-19 than other countries. Italy has 6%; China 4%.

KUHN: South Korea's rate is less than 1%. And notably, he says, South Korea has managed to do this without locking down entire cities or regions, as China and Italy have done.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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