Officials in hazard suits check a driver for Covid-19 at a drive-through testing center in South Korea. Photo; AFP

As South Korea combats one of the world’s worst outbreaks of Covid-19, the country has armed itself with a potent weapon – innovation.

The country had 7,869 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of midday March 12 – the fourth highest number in the world outside China, Italy and Iran. However, its 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, technology

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

“We consider two core values as very important,” Kim Gang-lip, Overall Coordinator 1 of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, told foreign reporters on March 9. “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, the law 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 theater. 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, travelers from high-risk areas are required to download an app and to report their health status every day for 14 days, post-entry. 

Cure imminent?

On March 4, 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.

“The institute will spare no support to develop Covid-19 virus diagnostic technique, vaccine, and medicine development,” KRICT President Lee Mi-hye said. “We will continue to work to treat infectious diseases connected closely to public health.”

Driving diagnoses

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

Multiple municipalities, led by Goyang, 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.

Kim An-hyun, chief of the Goyang community health center, told local broadcaster MBC: “Here we can test many people within a short period of time in a less crowded manner, and there are lower risks of infection because it’s done inside the car.”

Startups step up

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 has the capability to test up to 20,000 per day, government officials told foreign reporters this week. 

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.

Seoul-based diagnostic company Seegene 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.

“It was an adventurous investment for the company to start developing the test kit, as we weren’t sure how contagious the virus would be at the time,” Park Yo-han, an investor-relations manager at Seegene, told Bloomberg. “We thought we needed to contribute to society.”

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

Biotech startup MiCo BioMed announced last month that it had developed a rapid molecular diagnostic system that could detect Covid-19 in only one hour. The company, which focuses on molecular diagnostics, biological chemistry and immunoassay diagnostics technology, had previously developed equipment to detect bioterrorism pathogens for the 2017 U-20 World Cup Games, 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and 2019 Gwangju Asian Swimming Games.

CEO Kim Sung-woo told local business daily The Hankyung that he hopes the lightweight diagnostic equipment could be installed at airports and ports as well as treatment centers.

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

Genetic technology solutions provider SolGent, 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 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.

Optolane’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.

The remote-work software provider Rsupport 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, Classum, is providing for free its remote teaching service to schools, educational institutes and other learning professionals suffering from school closures and canceled classes. Classum allows for questions, notices, notes, feedback, surveys and anything else you’d need to conduct a class, optimized for the online experience.

Other startups offering free services during the outbreak include the English learning app CatchIt English, the restaurant waitlist app Nowwaiting, cloud-based consulting solution Cloud Gate and edu-tech developer Classting.

Nathan Millard runs a startup marketing firm in Seoul that includes, among its clients, KISED, or The Korea Institute for Startup and Entrepreneurship Development.