South Korea says BA.5 won’t bring back social distancing

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The Yoon Suk-yeol administration faces its first major COVID-19 test as BA.5, a more recent subvariant of omicron, begins to drive up cases in South Korea.

In a televised news conference Wednesday morning, top health officials stressed that social distancing will not be making a comeback.

Peck Kyong-ran, Yoon’s first Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agnecy commissioner, said, “Social distancing won’t be legally binding like it had been in the past.”

She said that the country’s growing portfolio of vaccines and treatments, and expanded hospital capacities among other factors provided grounds for navigating the BA.5 phase without making social distancing compulsory.

Instead high-risk groups will be given priority access to medical resources, and those working with them will be subject to stricter rules like regular testing, she said. People in their 50s will be eligible to receive fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccines, so far offered only to people at least 60 years and older.

South Korea recorded 40,266 cases on Tuesday, the highest figure since April 30 in the aftermath of the devastating omicron surge. The seven-day average of new cases more than doubled to 24,115 from 11,946 seen the preceding week.

Roughly two months since the first cases were detected on May 17, the share of BA.5 among sequenced cases has grown to take up 35 percent according to the latest analysis from the KDCA.

BA.5 is considered to be at once more contagious and immune-evasive than the earlier omicron subvariants and possibly more pathogenic, according to some animal models that are not yet supported by real-world evidence.

Outside researchers working with the KDCA forecast that the BA.5 wave could grow to reach more than 100,000 daily cases by September — under which scenario as many as 1,000 critical care beds could be occupied by COVID-19 patients at a time, with about 150 deaths occurring a day.

The forecasts for the next two months suggest the upcoming weeks won’t be as bad as the BA.2 and BA.1-led wave that hit earlier this year. In March, when the BA.2 variant was raging, an average of 264 deaths were announced each day.

According to the official statistics, there have been 18,561,861 coronavirus cases so far through the pandemic as of Tuesday midnight, about 90 percent of which have taken place over the initial omicron wave earlier this year. South Korea has seen one of the largest BA.2 and BA.1 caseloads globally, with the number of one-day cases peaking at 621,148 on March 17.

This means officially more than a third of the entire South Korean population has been infected at least once. The KDCA says the presence of high levels of immunity probably allowed for a respite from cases in the past couple of months.

As more than 97 percent of eligible adults are fully vaccinated, most omicron patients were breakthrough-infections and likely acquired hybrid immunity that is believed to be more robust than a natural or vaccine-induced immunity.

But immunity waning over time and the soon-to-be dominant BA.5’s increased ability to dodge prior immunities raise risks of reinfections, the KDCA warned. The proportion of patients with suspected reinfection out of all known patients has grown steadily from 1.22 percent in the first week of June to 2.96 percent by the fourth week.

While Yoon has vowed his approach to COVID-19 will be driven by science, a lot of the shortcomings in the country’s response system he had taken issue with as a candidate, like the lack of transparency of data, remain unaddressed.

Dr. Paik Soon-young, an emeritus professor of microbiology at Catholic University of Korea, pointed out that the monitoring efforts were “subpar.”

Over the first week of July, only about 80,000 tests were conducted a day on average, which is far below the government-touted 850,000 PCR tests a day. The KDCA said it was unable to provide how many of the tests being done were PCR or RAT.

Since the first week of February, PCR testing has been restricted to people aged 60 and older, which could lead to a considerable proportion of cases among those younger likely going undetected by the less accurate RATs, experts have worried.

Despite repeated requests from The Korea Herald and other news outlets, the KDCA has not published how many samples of positive patients are being sequenced for variant monitoring, and how often. But as samples of patients given RATs cannot be collected, those who do not have access to PCR testing are likely not being screened for variants.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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