How South Korea prevented a coronavirus disaster—and why the battle isn’t over

The nation beat back COVID-19 with more than its large number of tests. Can it maintain this success?

Photograph by Jun Michael Park, National Geographic
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Medical workers take nose and mouth swabs, each collected in less than a minute, at a walk-in clinic at H Plus Yangji Hospital in Seoul, April 14, 2020. The walk-in clinic is set up like phone booths to prevent contact between patients and medical staff. Since opening this type of testing site on March 10, the hospital has screened 2,700 patients and identified 4 confirmed cases, as of April 22. A test result can be returned within 4 to 6 hours.

Photograph by Jun Michael Park, National Geographic

How South Korea prevented a coronavirus disaster—and why the battle isn’t over

The nation beat back COVID-19 with more than its large number of tests. Can it maintain this success?

The COVID-19 testing center at H Plus Yangji Hospital in southern Seoul doesn't look like much from the outside. Resembling a mobile home, the temporary building sits in a parking lot near a loading ramp, propped up on one end by a wooden plank. Its walls are wrapped in red and white, and billboard-like signage proclaims that the hospital was named one of the 100 best in the Republic of Korea.

But inside is a gleaming bank of four booths with transparent plastic walls; rubber gloves embedded through them in a manner similar to a high-grade biosafety lab. When a person walks into a booth, they consult over an intercom with a doctor who remains outside. The doctor can swab their nose and throat using the gloves without ever coming into contact with the patient. The booths maintain negative air pressure, which sucks in any virus-carrying airborne droplets. After the test, a staff member in protective gear disinfects the booth, scrubbing the walls with a squeegee.

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Individuals arriving from overseas receive mandatory testing for COVID-19 at Eunpyeong District Health Center in Seoul, South Korea, May 2, 2020. These community health centers have been the very frontline of testing and detection in South Korea’s battle against the coronavirus.

Hundreds of similar "walk-in" testing booths located all over the country have been one of the pillars of South Korea's highly successful strategy to contain COVID-19, helping officials roll out rapid and extensive diagnostic testing.

The nation of 51 million people has also taken a big data approach to contact tracing, using credit card history and location data from cell phone carriers to retrace the movements of infected people. Surveys show most Korean citizens are OK with sacrificing digital privacy to stop an outbreak. At the same time, authorities have pushed an intense—but mostly voluntary—social distancing campaign, leaving most bars, restaurants, and movie theaters free to operate.

The viral scourge is far from over in South Korea—a recent outbreak connected to several nightclubs was reported with 102 cases as of May 12. Despite this, the country’s response could serve as a model for the rest of the world, but achieving this level of speedy success in the face of a pandemic was not easy.

Lessons from the past

A major factor shaping South Korea's response was its ability to apply lessons learned during previous outbreaks, especially the country’s MERS coronavirus outbreak in 2015, which resulted in 186 cases and 38 deaths.

In the immediate aftermath, South Korea's legislature created the legal foundation for a comprehensive strategy for contact tracing—whereby anyone who has interacted with an infected person is traced and placed in quarantine. Amendments explicitly authorized health authorities to request patients' transaction history from credit card companies and location data from cell phone carriers—and to release the reconstructed movements in the form of anonymous "travel logs" so people could learn the times and places where they might have been exposed.

A huge push with contact tracing and testing managed to corral an early rise in cases that threatened to spiral out of control—hundreds were reported each day, peaking at 909 cases on February 29 with most associated with a religious sect in the city of Daegu. The strategy also managed to snuff out several subsequent coronavirus clusters at churches, computer gaming cafes, and a call center. By April 15, South Korea safely held a national election, in which 29 million people participated. Voters wore masks and gloves; polling centers took everyone's temperature and separated anyone with a fever. No cases have been traced to the election.

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A lab technician divides reagents at TCM Biosciences, a company developing COVID-19 testing kits in Pagyo, April 22, 2020. Aggressive testing, contact tracing, and quarantines have been key to South Korea's success in the battle against the coronavirus. Samples are analyzed using real-time PCR, and test results arrive within 4 to 6 hours.

While people in other countries may consider Korea’s data collection a violation of patient privacy, the measures have broad support from the South Korean public. In a March 4 poll led by the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health, 78 percent of 1,000 respondents agreed that human rights protections should be eased to strengthen virus containment efforts. Experience with past outbreaks also meant people were quick to stay at home and wear masks in public even before the government began issuing formal guidelines.

Crucially, South Korea had built up its diagnostic testing capabilities after the 2015 MERS outbreak. Unlike the U.S., which relied on testing kits developed by its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, South Korea enlisted the private sector. At a meeting in late January, officials urged local biotech companies to develop testing kits. Within a month, the nation was running more than 10,000 tests daily.

A recent boom in South Korea's biotech scene, long predating the pandemic, helped with the ramp-up, says Thomas Shin, the CEO of TCM Biosciences, a company in Pangyo, south of Seoul. "During the last five years, there were many new bioscience companies," says Shin. TCM was one of the companies that heeded the government's call to develop kits, and it received approval from the country’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in April.

Shin says the decision wasn't necessarily an easy one from a business perspective—new diseases are difficult to forecast, and if they're snuffed out quickly, it can be hard to recoup the costs of initial development. But with South Korea’s close connections to the outbreak’s epicenter in China, Shin says TCM could see a similar situation developing rapidly on the home front—and projected a business opportunity in the global market. So far, the company has shipped kits worth roughly $2.6 million.

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Following the advice from the South Korean government, public and private institutions introduced exams that adhere to social distancing. On Saturday, April 25, the Korea Life Insurance Association and the General Insurance Association of Korea conducted a qualification exam for insurance sales agents outdoors. It was a windy day, but more than 18,000 people sat for the exam across Korea. Test takers were happy that the exams resumed after a hiatus of more than two months.

On April 30, the nation reported just four cases, all of them travelers arriving from abroad, marking the first day with zero local infections in two and a half months. As case numbers have continued to fall, the government has cautiously relaxed its guidelines, while signaling a shift to "everyday quarantine" measures, such as wearing masks and temperature checks at schools.

People's attitudes have also relaxed, leading some officials to worry about complacency and a second wave of infections. The nightclub outbreak may heighten those fears, but the government has already responded aggressively, tracing and testing thousands of people in a matter of days.

Last mile is the toughest

Though testing companies were quick to respond to the demand, rolling out the kits presented difficulties. Through February, demand for tests was still outpacing supply, and there were only enough kits to distribute to a select number of hospitals.

Furthermore, hospitals struggled to administer the tests to potentially contagious patients safely and quickly—testing areas needed to be sanitized after each patient, long queues meant the virus could spread while people waited in line, and health workers were running low on protective gear. At Yangji Hospital, this also led to exhausted staff, says hospital director Sang Il Kim.

"Even when we did have kits, the waiting times were just too long for everybody to get tested, so they would have to go to other hospitals," adds Yoona Chung, a doctor in the hospital's surgery department.

According to Yangji's data, the hospital was conducting roughly 10 tests a day by late February—but many more were being turned away due to the wait. Other hospitals in Korea started experimenting with drive-through testing centers, where patients could get tested without leaving their cars. But Yangji Hospital is near a subway station in a crowded neighborhood in southern Seoul; for many of its patients, cars aren't an option.

So, Kim devised the walk-in booths, which went into pilot operation on March 10. Within days, the number of tests administered in a day had tripled. By the end of the month, the hospital could handle more than 90 patients a day. Hospitals elsewhere in Korea and around the world quickly adopted their own variations on the concept. A hospital in Busan had a similar idea independently but others have had help from Kim.

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A Korean BBQ joint in Seoul is bustling with locals on on Sunday, April 26. They are enjoying themselves after two months of voluntary quarantine and social distancing.

At Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, hospital leadership saw news reports on Yangji's booths and asked an in-house team to create a version, hoping to better protect their health workers and conserve precious protective gear. A bit of Googling and two phone calls later, hospital staff connected her with Kim via email.

"I remember it was 10 p.m., we're all frustrated, up all night, trying to figure out how to make this work," says Nour Al-Sultan, a business strategy analyst at the MGH Springboard Studio, the team of researchers and designers tasked with reverse engineering the booths. “I go to bed, and I wake up the next morning, and Dr. Kim is the one who answers all of my questions."

MGH has now installed about eight booths at three hospitals in the Boston region. According to preliminary data, they've reduced the need for protective gowns, which are in short supply, by 96 percent, saving more than 500 gowns a week. The MGH team is now working with colleagues in Uganda to help them develop their own versions of the booths.

“The fact that he took the time to provide me with such generous insights is just a testament to this spirit of global collaboration against the pandemic," Al-Sultan says.