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South Korea, Britain Aggressively Test for Coronavirus

Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a department store in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020.

The highly contagious new coronavirus, COVID-19, is testing the capacities of health systems around the world. Several, like those in South Korea and Britain, demonstrate robust diagnostic capability — a critical element of efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen.

How did South Korea increase its testing capacity?

South Korea has the second-largest national caseload of coronavirus, and has tested far more than most nations. As of Monday, South Korea had tested a total of 105,379 people, and 4,212 people were confirmed to have the disease. Some 200 designated health centers across the country can test up to 15,000 people daily.

Newly developed test kits that show results in six hours gained emergency approval by the Korea Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and were distributed to testing facilities on Feb. 7.

The world's first drive-through testing facilities were also introduced last week, further cutting testing time and minimizing contact between patients and medical workers.

And even more time-saving innovations are in the pipeline. On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said test kits that show results in just 20 minutes are under review by the Korea Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. He also said more drive-through testing facilities could be built in empty lots and not necessarily in hospitals.

A tourist wearing a face mask takes pictures inside the Duomo gothic cathedral as it reopened to the public after being closed due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak in northern Italy, in Milan, March 2, 2020.
A tourist wearing a face mask takes pictures inside the Duomo gothic cathedral as it reopened to the public after being closed due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak in northern Italy, in Milan, March 2, 2020.

How is Britain's 'random testing' being carried out?

Britain stands out with a very low coronavirus positivity rate of 0.3%. As of Monday, a total of 13,525 people have been tested in Britain, of which 40 were confirmed positive. Public Health England dispatched coronavirus diagnostic test kits to labs across the country on Feb. 10. Since last week, Britain has started mass testing on those who have flu-like symptoms. Eleven hospitals and 100 general medical offices are testing those who are coughing, with a fever and shortness of breath.

How are European and Middle Eastern countries with the worst outbreaks coping?

Italy has the most cases in Europe with 1,694 as of Monday. Italy has carried out more than 23,300 tests. Meanwhile, Iran is preparing for the possibility that "tens of thousands" of people will require testing, according to a spokesman for Iran's Health Ministry. Iran has the world's highest death toll outside of China, with 43. The virus's death rate in Iran is much higher than in other countries, at over 7%. Experts at the World Health Organization are worried Iran may be underreporting the number of cases.

Which country is under fire due to cautious testing?

Japan, for one, is criticized by its media for the low testing numbers. Nihon Keizai pointed out that only 900 tests were conducted on average per day, far fewer than the maximum capacity announced by the Japanese government at 3,800. The Japan Medical Association told a news conference it would investigate reports that people referred by doctors to local health centers for tests were being turned away due to staffing shortages.

Commuters wearing masks sit on a train in Tokyo, March 2, 2020.
Commuters wearing masks sit on a train in Tokyo, March 2, 2020.

How is the U.S. planning to expand testing capacity?

The United States has 75,000 diagnostic kits available at the moment and will expand that number "radically" in coming weeks, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told ABC's "This Week" and CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also announced it would allow hundreds of labs to test for the virus. Until now, all test samples were sent to a lab in Atlanta run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has conducted fewer than 500 tests, but the decision is expected to improve the pace of detecting the virus.

"We need to come up with a process where private and public health labs, including CDC, work together from the very start of a potential outbreak to get diagnostic testing developed and in the hands of laboratories that can effectively use the technology to test patients," Dr. Melissa Miller told VOA. Miller is director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

How important is testing?

Testing allows for isolating patients and preventing the spread of the virus.

"The coronavirus is spread by droplets," Dr. Eli Perencevich, professor of Internal Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, told VOA. "Control of droplet-spread viruses is best done through rapid detection or testing, and isolation of people infected with the organism. In addition, more testing will allow for more rapid, effective contact tracing.

"The cities, states and countries that have adequate testing will be most prepared to detect infected people and those exposed to them, and will have more success in slowing and containing their local outbreaks," Perencevich said.