South Korea says relapsed coronavirus cases are “testing flukes”

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
By Paul Martin

by: Ralph Flores
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Health authorities in South Korea have found that people who tested positive for COVID-19 a second time had not passed the disease to others. This raises the idea that the suspected relapses were a testing fluke as opposed to a reemergence of an active infection.

While the study is still in its preliminary stages – with health authorities looking at whether recovered patients develop immunity to the virus or it can go dormant and emerge later, the findings are enough for the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) to revise their guidance. In particular, the agency no longer requires quarantine for discharged patients and has stopped using the term “relapsed” to describe these cases, going for the “redetected” instead.

“So far we have not seen secondary infections from people who were in contact with the relapsed patients,” explained Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, during a briefing last Monday.

Redetected, not reactivated

South Korea’s handling of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) has been closely watched by the international community: With its aggressive testing regime and contact testing, the country has managed to keep its caseload relatively low, despite being among the countries first hit by the pandemic. Based on data from Johns Hopkins University, South Korea has 11,265 confirmed cases and 269 deaths.

The likelihood of being reinfected is something that weighs heavily not only for patients with COVID-19 — it also affects governments that are looking to reopen their economies, especially those with limited testing capacities.

To date, over 470 South Korean have tested positive again for COVID-19 after being released from healthcare facilities. In the country, patients are required to test negative twice before leaving medical supervision. Last month, health authorities launched an investigation in Daegu – the epicenter of South Korea’s outbreak in March – after recovered patients tested positive again for the virus. The patients were placed in quarantine again while the KCDC conducted widespread contact tracing to decide whether the virus was contagious. In addition, the agency enforced mandatory 14-day home quarantine and coronavirus tests for all released patients.

Medical experts who were part of South Korea’s coronavirus task force first believed that these cases were reactivations, which meant that the virus became dormant then sprang up again. But on April 29, researchers concluded that these cases were caused by RT-PCR tests picking up fragments of dead viruses after patients recuperated.

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