|An Imperial guard wearing a face mask stands outside Gyeongbok Palace, the main royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty, in Seoul, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. A viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 20,000 people globally. Korea has 16 cases. AP|
By Jung Min-ho
"I urge the Korean authorities to close the border with China, and quarantine any passengers arriving in the country, by air or sea, for at least three weeks, and those who've been in China during the past two months," Hakim Djaballah, former CEO of Institute Pasteur Korea, told The Korea Times.
"The Moon Jae-in administration is in a very tough spot between neighborly diplomacy and doing the right thing for the country.
"Thus far, we have seen the first death and the first human-to-human viral transmissions outside China. I fear that we are on track for a pandemic and by mid-March we will know for sure if this epidemic is contained or growing into a real pandemic."
|Commuters at Seoul Railway Station wear masks to protect themselves against the corona virus, Feb. 3, 2020. Reuters|
His comments come two days after the Korean Medical Association said the government's ban on foreign travelers coming from or through China's Hubei Province only was insufficient.
Since emerging in Wuhan, the capital of the central Chinese province, about a month ago, the virus has killed at least 490 people and infected more than 20,000 in 25 countries, as of Tuesday (KST).
Djaballah, who led Institute Pasteur Korea during the 2015 outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) ― also caused by corona virus ― believes the statistics from the Wuhan outbreak have been deliberately underestimated.
"I believe the reported numbers by the Chinese authorities are underestimated in order not to cause a global panic and affect China's economic growth," he said. "The rapid change in the World Health Organization (WHO) policy very soon after its general director visited China is a strong indication of a real problem ahead."
|Korean protesters stage a rally near Cheong WA Dae in Seoul on Jan. 29 calling for a ban on Chinese people entering Korea. The sign reads 'No Entry.' AP|
On a positive note, however, Djaballah says some existing small molecular medication seems to be working against the virus; including the Gilead experimental drug for Ebola remdesivir, which blocks the virus from replicating.
"But I remain very skeptical of any ongoing efforts to make a vaccine against this virus," he said. "Now is not the ideal time for making vaccines and it is also unwise for the leadership of the British Wellcome Trust to advise us through social media to get flu vaccines in the hope of protecting oneself against this virus.
"As we remember the race to make a vaccine against the MERS virus in Korea, sponsored partly by Samsung, led to the funding of several research groups and companies to produce vaccines, but five years later, nothing of value came out of it. I urge the Korean authorities to start using remdesivir as a prophylactic and preventative treatment for all quarantined and suspected individuals."
The WHO declared the Wuhan virus outbreak a global health emergency last week, but did not recommend restrictions on travel and trade or other measures against China.
On Tuesday, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming stressed China's capability to fight the virus and called on Korean authorities to listen to the WHO when taking measures ― a comment apparently aimed at Seoul's current travel restrictions.