Lessons from Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan on containing COVID-19 pandemic

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Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan – all three countries are placed uncomfortably close to China, the initial epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic that's now swept across the world. But, says a US News report, they also have one other thing in common: They've each managed to contain their COVID-19 infections, preventing the new coronavirus from reaching epidemic proportions within their borders. How did they did so might provide lessons to the US and elsewhere, experts say.

The report quotes public health experts as saying that South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam each recognised the novel coronavirus as a threat from the outset, and aggressively tested suspected cases and tracked potential new infections. "Finding cases and isolating them so they're not transmitting forward – that's the tried and true way of controlling an infectious disease outbreak, and when you analyse what was done in many Asian countries, you will find that at its core," said Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security in Baltimore.

The first cases of what is now called COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, China, in early to mid-December, linked to a live animal and seafood market located next to a major train station. Most of the world took a watch-and-wait approach, but not Vietnam, said Ravina Kullar, an infectious diseases researcher and epidemiologist with Expert Stewardship Inc in Newport Beach, California. "They actually started preparing for this on 31 December, 2019. They were testing on 31 December," Kullar said. "They were proactive, and that I think is a key to preventing epidemics. They were overly cautious, and that really benefited the country."

There have been just 153 confirmed cases in Vietnam, which has a population of more than 96m, according to Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracking.

A lack of testing in other countries has led to the widespread implementation of authoritarian measures like lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Adalja noted. "If you don't have the diagnostic testing capacity, there may be a tendency to use very blunt tools like shelter-in-place orders, because you don't know where the cases are and where they aren't," Adalja said.

South Korea initiated a system of patient "phone booths" to help people get quickly and safely tested for COVID-19, Kullar said. A country of 50m, South Korea currently has 9,241 confirmed cases of COVID-19. While cases continue to climb there, they have done so with a much more gradual slope in March after a steep spike in February.

The report says experts note that South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan all learned lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic and built up their public health infrastructure to be able to immediately respond to future crises.

Just 81 miles from mainland China, Taiwan had every reason to become a hotbed of COVID-19 activity. There's a regular and steady flow of population between the island and China. But there only have been 252 confirmed cases among the island's 23m citizens. As with Vietnam, Taiwan began screening passengers flying in from Wuhan as early as 31 December. The island expanded its screening within a week to include anyone who recently travelled to either Wuhan or the Hubei province in which the city is located. Taiwan also instituted border controls, quarantine orders and school closures, and set up a command centre for quick communication between local governments and their citizens.

Although the US missed its chance to head off a COVID-19 epidemic, and is well on its way to becoming the pandemic's new epicentre, these lessons drawn from other countries could still be used to help manage infections in the months and years ahead, Adalja and Kullar said. Public health measures like quick testing and contact tracing need to be in place and ready to go by the time states start to lift their lockdowns, Adalja said.

Full US News report

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