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South Korea looks to tech to combat Covid-19

As South Korea battles one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), the nation has armed itself with a potent weapon – innovation.

The country had 7,869 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of midday 12 March 2020 – the fourth highest number in the world outside China, Italy and Iran. However, it’s handling of the crisis has been widely lauded as a benchmark, in terms of both its effective response and its open and democratic approach.

While the government oversees the countrywide response, national laboratories and startups alike are pouring money and manpower into solutions to manage the crisis.

Transparency and technology

Since the onset of the outbreak in January, Seoul has tackled the illness with a combination of technological prowess and bureaucratic acumen.

The Overall Coordinator 1 of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters stated that the agency considers two core values very important; the first is that public participation must be secured through openness and transparency. The second is to respect creative thinking and use cutting edge technology to develop the most effective means of response.

Under the Infectious Disease Control and Prevent Act, the public has the right to be informed about all developments and responses in disease control. Not only are government briefings on the outbreak held twice a day, but the law also enables related authorities to access a wide range of information resources. Information is shared with the public through an interactive website, Corona Map.

Authorities have back-tracked the movements of infected persons via mobile phone location information, credit card usage and data-mining of CCTV footage, then published extremely detailed lists of their whereabouts – down to which seat they sat in at a movie theatre. This information has been available to the public via apps, which, in leveraging GPS, allow persons to avoid areas infected persons have frequented.

Apps are also supplied for the use of those who, with mild symptoms, are in-home quarantine. The app permits some self-diagnosis and connects those in quarantine to monitoring staff.

And virus-centric apps are not only for locals. At the country’s international ports of entry, travellers from high-risk areas are required to download an app and to report their health status every day for 14 days, post-entry.

Is a cure on the horizon?

On 4 March 2020, a team of South Korean researchers with the state-funded Center for Convergent Research of Emerging Virus Infection under the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology (KRICT) announced findings that suggest medical workers could use antibodies from SARS and MERS to treat Covid-19.

Confirming through genome analysis the similarities between the SARS, MERS and Covid-19 viruses, the team posited that antibodies that neutralize the former could combine with the latter. They explained that if patients are injected with antigens through vaccines that use antibodies that neutralize SARS and MERS virus, the human body can form antibodies through immunizing responses to neutralize pathogens.

The team also published findings on the detection sensitivity of primer and probe sets used to detect Covid-19.

Driving diagnoses

Local governments, too, are finding innovative ways to manage the Covid-19 outbreak.

Multiple municipalities have set up “drive-thru” Covid-19 testing pods where medical staff in protective clothing take samples from people in automobiles.

The process takes only 15 minutes, costs less than US$20 and obviates direct contact as it does not require the driver to exit the vehicle as samples can be collected through an open window.

Other major cities, including Seoul, the port city of Incheon and Sejong, the government administrative city, have followed Goyang’s lead and opened similar facilities.

Startups lend aid

South Korea’s large number of confirmed Covid-19 cases can largely be attributed to the country’s widespread testing regime. The country has tested more than 200,000 people and can test up to 20,000 per day, according to government officials.

Test turnaround times range from six to 24 hours, but a range of companies are producing products that, they say, can cut these times significantly.

A Seoul-based diagnostic company has developed a diagnostic kit for the novel coronavirus that reduced the time to get results from 24 hours to only six hours. The company uses an artificial intelligence-powered automated production system to produce tests more quickly.

The company is also supplying its kits to Germany and Italy and has sent samples for evaluation to Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Vietnam.

A biotech startup last month stated that it had developed a rapid molecular diagnostic system that could detect Covid-19 in only one hour. Its CEO stated that he hopes the lightweight diagnostic equipment could be installed at airports and ports as well as treatment centres.

Two other biotech startups teamed up to produce a portable, battery-powered scan device that can detect Covid-19 infection in just 30 minutes.

Genetic technology solutions provider, meanwhile, recently received emergency use authorization for its in-vitro diagnostic kit. The company’s DiaPlex Q Noble Coronavirus kit takes only two hours from sample collection to return results. A single kit can run 100 tests with a weekly output of 1,000.

Another startup is using semiconductor technology to make real-time testing using the PCR technique faster and more reliable.

Sometimes called “molecular photocopying,” PCR – short for a polymerase chain reaction – is a fast and inexpensive technique to “amplify” small segments of DNA so they can be used for detecting viruses such as Covid-19. Unfortunately, the technique can suffer from accuracy problems when a few viruses are present in the sample.

Moreover, another firm’s digital real-time PCR analysis device produces fast, accurate results no matter how few viruses are in the sample, reports the ELEC. According to the company, it takes under an hour for the results, and the price of the kit would be about one-tenth of other PCR kits.

Easing social distancing

With companies promoting telecommuting, schools closed until the end of March and universities extending their winter vacation, tech firms are helping the public cope with the necessary social distancing and isolation.

A remote-work software provider is offering startups and other corporations free use of its remote meeting solution RemoteMeeting for three months to help them overcome the crisis.

Another startup is providing for free its remote teaching service to schools, educational institutes and other learning professionals suffering from school closures and cancelled classes. The firm allows for questions, notices, notes, feedback, surveys and anything else you’d need to conduct a class, optimized for the online experience.


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