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Perfect storm of coronavirus in Korea

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A main street in Daegu is almost deserted after a group of confirmed cases of novel coronavirus was reported Friday. Yonhap
By Oh Young-jin

I spoke with American virology expert Dr. Hakim Djaballah Friday morning about the COVID-19 outbreak in Korea.

In New York, where he is based after stint as head of the Institut Pasteur Korea, he repeated: "This is bad." He was referring to a cluster of cases in Daegu and the first death in Korea from the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic.

Djaballah described the Daegu outbreak as a case of "community transmission," by which the disease can jump to pandemic proportions. It is because members of a community eat, drink and play together and live close, meaning a greater chance of contraction and contagion.

He called on Korean authorities promptly to account for those who the "super spreader" churchwoman in Daegu had contact with or the situation might get out of control. He said it is a race against time.

Djaballah, who proved prescient during Korea's 2015 MERS outbreak, said that with ground zero being a close-knit church, the government could not shut that particular church down or other places of worship without risking being accused of suppressing religious freedom, a basic democratic tenet.

If there is panic, people from Daegu might hit the road by train in an exodus and it would be a disaster. He said that in a worst-worst case scenario, "it could be a Wuhan in Korea."

The Chinese city, the epicenter of the disease, has seen tens of thousands of people sickened or dead. It has been under complete lockdown, a step only possible in an authoritarian country like China but next to impossible in a democracy like Korea.

Therefore, Djaballah raised the possibility of a potential "perfect storm" if tens of thousands of Chinese students return to Korea for a new semester in March.

"Campuses are a lot like churches in terms of the high risk of contagion," he said. "The next couple of days are important to better understand the situation. We had better brace for a worse situation than MERS."

A microscopic picture of the virus SARSCoV2 from patient No. 1, taken by a Seoul National University medical team. Yonhap

© The Korea Times