|A Korean protester calls for an entry ban on all people from China during a rally near the presidential office in Seoul on Jan. 29, 2020. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
By Jung Min-ho
"Unfortunately, it may be a little bit too late because the SARS-CoV2 (which causes COVID-19) has adapted well in Korea and now the main concern is how the government will approach this dire situation and contain it," Hakim Djaballah, former CEO of Institute Pasteur Korea, told The Korea Times. "The Daegu cluster is growing and may spread even further south to Busan and north back to Seoul."
More than 760 people have been confirmed as infected in Korea as of Monday morning, a spike from 16 on Feb. 4. Since emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan about two months ago, the virus has killed more than 2,400 people and infected nearly 80,000 around the world.
"The measures taken by the government thus far have clearly failed," Djaballah said. "But I still believe that it is time for the government to act by closing the border with China and other countries showing clusters such as Hong Kong and Singapore in the hope of minimizing new virus arriving from there."
At a press conference on Monday, Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said the government would not impose an outright entry ban on all visitors coming from China. The government has restricted those coming from or through China's Hubei Province only since Feb. 2 despite the Korean Medical Association's advice that current measures are insufficient.
|This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February, 2020, shows the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, orange, emerging from the surface of cells, green, cultured in the laboratory. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. AP|
Are we facing muted virus?
Djaballah, who led the Institute Pasteur Korea during the 2015 outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) ― also caused by coronavirus ― believes the SARS-CoV2 has mutated to adapt to its new hosts.
"Similar to the situation with the MERS-CoV a few years ago, this new coronavirus must have adapted through mutations to become even more aggressive in its infectivity in Korea than previously predicted," he said. "I strongly believe that the SARS-CoV2 has mutated and keeps mutating as it propagates from one person to another in multiple countries. It is also of concern that up to now, we do not know anything about 'patient zero' in Wuhan."
Djaballah is not the only expert who has brought up the possibility. A new study by scientists studying the virus at the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai said in the National Science Review on Jan. 29 that "viral evolution may have occurred during person-to-person transmission."
The researchers said they detected 17 non-synonymous mutations from cases around China between Dec. 30 and late January.
"Close monitoring of the virus's mutation, evolution and adaptation is needed," they added.