This is part of the interview with Dr. Hakim Dajballah, the New York-based virology expert. Dr. Hakim Dajballah, a New York-based virology expert, told The Korea Times Monday that he is seeing the beginning of the tail end of the coronavirus epidemic in Korea. Talking from New York over the phone, the former head of Institut Pasteur Korea forecast that the situation in Daegu, the epicenter of the epidemic in Korea, and its surrounding North Gyeongsang Province would stabilize and be under control in the next couple of weeks.
“Daegu is done,” he said, meaning the number of new cases will be tapering off in that period and Korea will be “90 percent contained.” But this does not mean the country is home free, considering that the remaining 10 percent depends on “hygiene.” He predicted Italy might surpass Korea in terms of damage from the epidemic because of Italians’ cultural tendency to have physical contact with each other without a heightened sense of this contact’s potential for the virus to be transmitted. And while Koreans nowadays wear masks and frequently wash their hands or use hand sanitizers that aid to prevent the virus spreading, this is far from the norm at a time when fears of the potentially deadly virus transmission are not at the fore of public consciousness.
Question: What do you think about the efficiency shown by Korea in testing? Some foreign media outlets are praising Korea.
Answer: Praise is the easiest thing one can do when one does not understand the underlying story or problem at hand. It is like watching a movie trailer and praising the director for a fantastic piece of work. I agree with the policy change and with the impressive enhancements in screening and sample testing. The government has rolled out one of the most efficient and organized operations in the world, organized like clockwork and with almost military precision, but at a severe cost to the health of doctors, scientists, and healthcare workers. I am also pleased to learn that the government is helping with the mask distribution, making sure that citizens do not gather unnecessarily to obtain them.
The Moon Jae-in government started this enhanced policy a little bit too late, but it is catching up now, which is a very good thing and timely for the country. Now the question we should be asking is why the sudden change? My guess would be that the original protocol of narrow definition of who to test first was not working well, leading the government to change its definition to a much broader scope of screening and testing as many as possible, regardless of symptoms. The government should be commended for this effort, but at the same time, when the outbreak is over and life returns gradually to normal, and as we look back on how it all unfolded, we will realize that the Shincheonji church in Daegu may have played a major and decisive role in the policy change and in saving more Korean lives.
I am against discrimination and stigmatization, period. I may well be the only one thinking this way but, inadvertently, the church community raised the threat to red and forced the Moon government to get out there and ramp up testing, self-quarantine, and provide masks.
The church has executed one of the most dangerous experiments on community-acquired infections ever and demonstrated for the first time that this cryptic SARS-CoV2 virus is a multilateral infector with a strong love for communities. The “church experiment” provided some missing links that China and the World Health Organization (WHO) failed to provide. It showed that we are now dealing with hygiene practices leading to community-acquired infections.
I was surprised to see the Wall Street Journal headline “Why a South Korean Church Was the Perfect Petri Dish for Coronavirus.” The authors further insinuated that the Moon government had a technologically advanced plan to fight the virus, but the secrecy of the Shincheonji church punched a hole in their defenses. This story goes to show how sometimes ignorance trumps comprehension of the problem at hand and, in a sobering way, the authors also validate the idea that the church may have saved the government from its not so technically advanced plan and acted as a petri dish of sorts. Petri dishes, commonly used tools in a research laboratory, often provide critical data on the growth characteristics of cells and bacteria. Unfortunately, the church taught us how the virus grows through community infection. Now that we understand a little bit more about this cryptic SARS-CoV2 virus, the policy enhancements will yield fruit in the next couple of weeks. I predict that the worst-case scenario is behind us, thankfully.
Question: What can other countries learn from Korea in its fight against coronavirus; both from its mistakes and from its successes?
Answer: I think the other countries should listen less to advice coming from China and the World Health Organization; they should address the crisis as a national security threat and activate all their protocols with a united call to fight this cryptic virus. Unlike with China, they must collaborate, share information, and help the less fortunate countries with much-needed test kits, medication, and medical devices. This crisis will test the goodwill and the healthcare systems of many of these rich countries. If China was conscientious enough to care about the rest of the world, China would have closed its borders back in December of 2019, prevented its citizens from traveling the world, and raised a worldwide red alert on this new threat. Clearly it had already gone through a crisis with the SARS outbreak of 2002; it should have known better.
I was disappointed by the WHO-China joint mission report; it was written on cue not to upset the Chinese authorities and keep to their message. It did not provide much new information to help us deal with the crisis. We still do not know a lot about the evolution of this cryptic virus, and China has not been forthcoming with information; rather more of the same rhetoric and defensive censorship. In the words of the late Dr. Li Wenliang, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better”. Dr. Li was the first honorable and brave Chinese citizen to raise the alarm back in December 2019. Dr. Li died from the COVID-19 disease after contracting the SARS-CoV2 on Feb. 7, 2020. Now as for what South Korea can teach the world, obviously, the first thing is to broaden the screening and tests regardless of symptoms or travel history to China, the second thing is to treat this threat almost as a bacterial-triggered community-based infection, and the third thing is hygiene practice. Hygiene practice will vary across countries and in some instances, it will be hard to change bad habits.
Question: Are we seeing the tail end of this crisis? If not, what would be a watershed moment?
Answer: I was very encouraged by the Jeju numbers, where there was no change in confirmed cases; and I would predict that we will begin to see a slowdown in Daegu as I think we have peaked by now. I predict that the outbreak will be contained at 90 percent in the next couple of weeks. The remaining 10 percent will very much depend on hygiene practices across the different communities, and it will require many more “awareness” campaigns by the Moon government, especially in rural areas.
Question: What can we do better?
Answer: South Korea’s preparedness has been tested twice already. The mistakes made during the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, triggered by one person only, could be attributed to naivety and inexperience dealing with viral outbreaks. However, this second time, geopolitics dominated the judgment of the crisis on the part of President Moon Jae-in and many of his ministers and advisers; they all failed to put country first and diplomacy second. I also fully understand the potential repercussions, because the crisis is hailing from China, but it would not deter me from saving my country and its citizens first. The National Assembly should, therefore, debate and define conditions under which the president can order border closures, noting that a viral outbreak is also a threat to national security and the country’s stability. These would ultimately become laws and even be added to the constitution, broadening both presidential power to close borders, and accountability.
The government should carefully revise and beef up its preparedness and emergency response protocols, in consultation with an independent commission of experts and the military. Training of non-medical and healthcare personnel should be part of the preparedness plan; providing much-needed help and support in case of another outbreak. The military can also be part of this initiative and train key personnel. The government should create an independent commission of national and international experts under the framework of risk assessments of emerging and reemerging pathogens with nationwide surveillance of threats and exploratory research. The work of the commission should report and be funded by the National Assembly. The commission would deal with all threats to humans and animals.
Source: The Korea Times