South Korea battles worst coronavirus outbreak in months, warns of crisis

South Korea warned on Monday of a looming novel coronavirus crisis as new outbreaks flared, including one linked to a church where more than 300 members of the congregation have been infected but hundreds more are reluctant to get tested.

The outbreak linked to the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul is the country’s biggest in nearly six months and led to a tightening of social distancing rules on Sunday.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 197 new cases as of midnight on Saturday, mostly in the Seoul metropolitan area, marking the fourth day of a three-digit tally.

South Korea has been one of the world’s coronavirus mitigation success stories but it has nevertheless battled persistent spikes in infections. The latest cases brought its total infections to 15,515 including 305 deaths.

“We’re seeing the current situation as an initial stage of a large-scale transmission,” KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

“We’re facing a crisis where if the current spread isn’t controlled, it would bring an exponential rise in cases, which could in turn lead to the collapse of our medical system and enormous economic damage.”

The outbreak at the Seoul church has revived fears seen in February when authorities struggled to contain an outbreak that emerged in a secretive Christian sect in the city of Daegu and became the country’s deadliest cluster.

As in the earlier case, authorities are facing some reluctance to cooperate and difficulty in tracking some of the members of the congregation.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters earlier the Presbyterian church had provided inaccurate lists of its 4,000 members. While 319 of them had tested positive, more than 600 who authorities want to see in isolation were unaccounted for.

“We’re very concerned,” Kim said, dismissing rumours that authorities wanted to round up church members and would record every test as positive regardless of the truth.

“That’s impossible. We can’t fabricate test results,” he said.

The church is led by a conservative activist, Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon, who has also been organising anti-government rallies calling for the ouster of liberal President Moon Jae-in, raising worry that the virus has been spreading at his protests too.