Coronavirus variant may have infected all 38 in S. Korea cluster

Posted on : 2021-02-04 16:42 KST Modified on : 2021-02-04 16:42 KST
Viral variant from UK is diagnosed in four relatives of index patient as new daily caseload surpasses 400 for the first time in three days
Travelers follow airport quarantine procedures on Feb. 3 after arriving that afternoon at Incheon International Airport’s Terminal 1. (Yonhap News)
Travelers follow airport quarantine procedures on Feb. 3 after arriving that afternoon at Incheon International Airport’s Terminal 1. (Yonhap News)

Cases of domestic transmission involving a COVID-19 virus variant originating in the UK were confirmed for the first time in South Korea on Feb. 3.

The variant in question is reported to be much more transmissible than the commonly circulating strains in South Korea.

Fears of a resurgence in infections are growing as the daily new confirmed caseload rose above 400 again that day. The government currently plans to observe the situation with the virus this week before making a decision this weekend on whether to relax disease control guidelines.

A total of 467 new COVID-19 patients tested positive by the end of the day on Feb. 2. That number brought the new caseload back over 400 patients after three straight days of totals in the 300-360 range since Jan. 30.

The South Korean government has said it may loosen measures such as restrictions on businesses operating after 9 pm based on the trend in the daily caseload.

In a regular briefing that day, Yoon Tae-ho, head of the disease control team for the Central Disaster Management Headquarters (CDMH), explained, “While transmission associated with International Mission appears to have stopped, cluster infections are appearing in settings associated with everyday activities, and we are also seeing new cluster infections at healthcare institutions and correctional facilities.”

“We do not see this as a situation where we can afford to let our guard down yet,” he stressed.

In particular, disease control authorities have pointed to virus variants as a factor that could drive a resurgence in the current third wave of COVID-19 infections. On Feb. 3, the first cases of virus variants were confirmed in South Korea.

“An analysis of 27 virus samples in South Korea since Feb. 1 showed virus variants in five of them,” the Central Disease Control Headquarters (CDCH) said in a briefing that day.

Of the five samples, four involved a variant originating in the UK, representing the first known cases of local transmission in the community, rather than family members arriving from overseas.

The patients in question were associated with a cluster infection involving relatives of a foreign national in South Gyeongsang Province and South Jeolla Province. A total of 38 people have been diagnosed to date in connection with that cluster.

The index patient, or the first patient diagnosed in the cluster, arrived in South Korea from the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 25 and tested positive on Jan. 7 prior to being released from quarantine.

The patient had been staying at their home in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang. A number of associated cases were subsequently diagnosed, most of them involving immediate family members and relatives.

Infections are believed to have occurred in seven different households through gatherings attended by relatives who had visited the patient’s home. The four patients infected with the UK variant were all relatives of the index patient.

“The contact history has been definitively confirmed in epidemiological terms, so there’s a very good possibility that all 38 of the cases in this [cluster] were infected with the virus variant,” said Park Young-joon, director of the CDCH epidemiological research team.

The fifth case involved a patient in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, who was confirmed to have been infected with a virus variant originating in South Africa. This brings the total number of confirmed variant infections in South Korea to 39 since October of last year.

Disease control authorities are watching the virus variants closely, as their higher transmissibility means they could spread more rapidly.

By Seo Hye-mi & Ock Kee-won, staff reporters

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