Thanks to this new system, on February 4, only two weeks after China releases the genetic sequence of COVID-19, a virus testing kit developed by Korean company Kogene Biotech Co Ltd is granted an emergency use authorization by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The test kit, which gets results in six hours, becomes available in 50 clinics just three days after its official approval. Korean health authorities are thus able to test hundreds of thousands of citizens for the virus in the space of a few days. As of late March, five Korean companies were producing test kits and Korea had started exporting tests, including to Europe
The COVID-19 testing campaign is a mix of free testing and intense compulsory tracing. Testing is free of charge for suspected cases (i.e. in the presence of symptoms or of a link to a confirmed case) since January, including for foreign nationals. Government covers hospitalisation costs, treatment and provides compensation for people living in self-quarantine. After the Daegu outbreak, the Korean government creates "Drive-through Test Centers" , where people can be tested for free and on demand inside their own car. Results are later sent by text message. The aim of those structures is to limit contact between patients and medical workers, as well as gaining time on the testing process, since it is possible to test 10 persons an hour. Within one month, a total of 40 drive-through facilities is active nationwide. In addition, to face the wave of incoming infected travelers returning or visiting Korea after mid-March, the government decides to test for COVID-19 all incoming travelers from Europe at the airport on March 22. In practice, passengers arriving from EU countries, if tested positive, are transferred to a hospital and treated immediately. Passengers testing negative still need to undergo a period of quarantine; Korean nationals must undergo a second examination within three days after returning home.
The Korean government also conducts intrusive contact tracing to track known and suspected cases alike, without the need of individual’s approval. At first, KCDC uses mostly mobile phone records as well as CCTV camera footage to determine who has come in contact with a confirmed carrier. The newspaper Chosun Ilbo describes the tracing process as: 1/ identifying people who came within a 2-m distance of a confirmed case a day before the person started displaying symptoms, and 2/ narrowing down depending of the conditions of contact (if the person was wearing a mask, sneezed, etc). Suspected cases are then put in self-quarantine for 14 days, regardless of if they are displaying symptoms or not (testing is done if symptoms appear, except for “high risk groups” related to major clusters). Credit card records are also used to improve tracing, as these records are more precise than phone records (roughly 80% of transactions in Korea are now made with credit cards). This tracing is done in collaboration with credit card companies: the KCDC sends information about a case with the date of first symptoms, and the companies send back data. According to Korean law, this kind of information is usually given upon court approval or personal consent, but in case of a national crisis, the KCDC is able to skip this step. Article 76-2 from the “Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act” states that, if necessary to prevent infectious diseases and block the spread of infection, the Minister of Health and Welfare and the KCDC can request administrative agencies, local governments, public institutions, medical institutions, corporations, organisations and individuals to provide personal information on confirmed and suspected cases (including information related to movement paths of patients). This article was added in July 6, 2015, after the MERS outbreak in Korea, to provide the MOHV and KCDC with legal authority to collect private data without a warrant (health authorities, under the previous law, struggled to understand the path of infection during MERS outbreak, which was heavily criticized).
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