South Korean President Moon Jae-in says situation 'very grave' as mass virus tests under way

A man wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea, on Feb 21, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean health authorities said on Tuesday (Feb 25) they aim to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the centre of a surge of new coronavirus cases as President Moon Jae-in said the situation was "very grave".

South Korea's tally of cases of coronavirus cases rose to 977, fuelling fears the outbreak, which is thought to have begun in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, is developing into a pandemic.

A member of a Korean Air cabin crew tested positive for the virus, the airline said, prompting it to shut its office near Incheon International Airport, where the crew briefing room is located.

About 68 per cent of South Korea's cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the first case was reported in a 61-year-old woman, but it is not known how she became infected.

South Korea reported its 10th death from the virus while the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 144 new confirmed cases.

Many of the new cases were in the south-eastern city of Daegu, where the church is located, and from nearby North Gyeongsang province, the KCDC said.

Mr Moon, in his first visit to Daegu since the outbreak began, called the situation very grave and said the coming week would be key in the battle to contain the virus.

He reassured residents that the government was not considering locking down the city.

The authorities said they had tested 13,000 people on Monday and expected to test another 12,500 on Wednesday, up from about 7,500 on earlier days.

Each polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine that South Korea is using to test for the virus is now running four tests per day, up from three in recent days, the KCDC said. Each test takes about two to three hours.

The leader of the Shincheonji Church said it had agreed to give the authorities the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.

The government will conduct coronavirus tests on all members "as soon as possible" once it gets the information, the prime minister's office said in a news release.

"It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety," the office said.

Health officials said the first priority was to test about 1,300 of more than 9,200 members of the Daegu church who are showing symptoms, which is expected to be completed by Wednesday.

"We're unable to test a massive amount of samples at a time, so we will put priority on those who are showing symptoms, the church members in Daegu and those who came in contact with them, and then expand the test gradually," KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said.

The members in Daegu have been under mandatory quarantine, with violations punishable by two million won (S$2,300) in fines, she said.

The church, which has faced public criticism of its handling of the outbreak, asked the government to ensure the personal details of its members did not become public.

The church founder and self-proclaimed messiah, Lee Man-hee, said that the church was cooperating with the government to stop the outbreak and that it would also check people in church training programmes.

"All of these will be implemented on the premise that the government takes steps to protect their personal information," he said in a letter posted online.

The government's goal is to "stabilise" the situation in Daegu within four weeks, Vice-Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said.

North Gyeongsang province has also seen surges in cases in recent weeks, most from a hospital in Cheongdo, which was designated a "special care zone" along with Daegu last week.

On Tuesday, 21 of the 33 cases from the province were confirmed to have come from a residential home for the disabled people in Chilgok county, also near Daegu, traced to a worker there whose mother is a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, Governor Lee Cheol-woo said.

The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, raised its warning level for South Korea and recommended Americans avoid all non-essential travel to the country, citing the "widespread, ongoing outbreak" of the coronavirus.

The US and South Korean militaries said they were considering scaling back joint training due, in one of the first concrete signs of the virus' fallout on global US military activities.

South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a news conference in Washington 13 cases had been confirmed in the South Korean armed forces.

More than 400 South Korean citizens were set to return from Israel, which imposed an entry ban and arranged two charter flights after more than two dozen South Korean Catholics who had gone on a pilgrimage there tested positive for the virus.

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