|The branch of Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Ulsan is closed after one confirmed case was found to have attended a service there, Sunday. Yonhap|
By Oh Young-jin
1) Are we correct about the two-week incubation period of the Wuhan pneumonia virus?
2) Are we making a mistake by stigmatizing members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the origin of clusters of coronavirus cases in Taegu?
3) Are Jeju cases isolated?
4) Is self-imposed quarantine working?
5) What is the worst-case scenario?
I went over these questions with Dr. Hakim Djaballah, an American virology expert based in New York, Monday morning. Djaballah said that our assumption of the two-week incubation period proved less tenable now because of reported cases that remained contagious past the due time. This means we may have to change our approach, especially with suspected cases.
The scientist, who was head of Institut Pasteur Korea at the height of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015, said the COVID-19 was more contagious than MERS. This was because the 19 thrived in the upper lungs, mouth and throat, while the MERS virus was in the lower lungs. Means of mass transit such as buses and subways can serve as ideal conduit because the crowded space increases the chance of contact and thereby transmission.
"Doors, handles and other objects where a lot of people touch are hotbed for the virus," he told me.
|Busan's busiest district looks deserted amid reports of confirmed cases of the coronavirus epidemic, Sunday. Yonhap|
Regarding the Shincheonji clusters, he said he was surprised to see the Korean media and President Moon Jae-in stigmatize the church, blaming it for being the source of the wider spread.
"It would be the last thing to pin the blame on it because it will drive them underground," he said.
Already, many of its members ― suspected of having contacted the patients ― remain unaccounted for and the cultish religious group was defiant when its spokesman told the nation that the church was the "victim."
|A spokesman for Shincheonji Church of Jesus streams through its YouTube channel and web site its position about the mass outbreaks of the Wuhan pneumonia among its members. The cultish church claims that it is the victim of the outbreak. Yonhap|
"If they move out to other areas or gather together in small groups, thinking they were the victim of religious prosecution, it would be a disaster," the doctor said.
So far, there have been two confirmed cases on Jeju Island. But Djaballa said he would pay greater attention to what would happen there.
"It is an island that depends on tourism or fishing but as with any island there is nowhere to go," he said.
The visa-waver privilege for Chinese tourists has been suspended for now to prevent the spread of the disease.
|President Moon Jae-in speaks of measures against the coronavirus epidemic, Sunday. Yonhap|
He also raised the alarm about medical staff contracting the disease, which made a major disaster out of the MERS outbreak because the staff became super spreaders themselves ― contacting patients in crowded medical facilities that patients' family members also frequented.
He said Korea was handling the latest epidemic very much from the point of sovereignty.
"The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do a better job," he said, suggesting that it should share more information with the world so experts from the outside could help. He pointed out that communication between the U.S. and European countries was smoother than Korea with the rest of the world, enhancing their cooperation in the fight against epidemics.
The doctor also proposed launching an independent commission ― comprised of doctors, virologists and engineers ― to lead or assist in the government's handling of the crisis.
|Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Park Yang-woo, left, and Full Gospel Church Senior Pastor Lee Young-hoon, right, speaks during the former's visit to the church in Yeouido, Seoul, Saturday, about its effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among worshippers. Yonhap|
"Bureaucracy weighs down on the Korean system, preventing its operations from becoming transparent," he said. "Through this commission, the government can gain credibility for its actions and get its actions crossed checked," he said.
He said the self-imposed quarantine might soon prove inadequate at the containment stage. The worst-case scenario he thought of was a "little Wuhan" breaking loose in the middle of Korea. During our previous conversation Friday, he referred to such a possibility, but he was hoping against hope that it would not happen.
You may find more of Dr. Djaballah's view in a submission he will send in the next two days.