South Korean officials were on high alert after discovering a new group of hundreds of patients infected with the new coronavirus over two days, many of the new infections associated with a secret Christian sect that has been described as a "cult".
Most of the newly confirmed infections were among those who attended services or were affiliated with a branch of the Shincheonji de Jesus Church in the city of Daegu in southeastern South Korea, bringing the total infected to 346 on Saturday morning. how new infections were showing signs of slowing in China.
Public health officials were trying to track down some 4,475 church members, of whom more than 500 reported having symptoms, according to the South Korea's Disease Control Center. Two of those infected with the virus died in South Korea.
The surprise surprise of infections in South Korea, where authorities closely tracked the infected, disclosed their whereabouts and tested anyone in contact, revealed the challenges faced by governments trying to prevent the spread of the virus and keep their citizens safe.
Hitoshi Oshitani, professor of virology at Japan's Tohoku University School of Medicine and a former World Health Organization consultant on communicable diseases, said after the initial infection-tracking phase among those with travel histories from Hubei province, China , where the outbreak began. , infection routes would become increasingly difficult to track.
“This transmission chain becomes invisible, we cannot detect these transmission chains. It is completely off our radar, ”Oshitani told foreign journalists in Tokyo on Wednesday. “In the coming weeks, we can see a very big outbreak somewhere in Asia or Africa; that's my biggest concern right now. "
South Korea had 51 confirmed cases of the virus on Wednesday night, before the cluster emerged in Daegu. Authorities said much of the increase was associated with Shincheonji, a religious sect founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who calls himself "the promised pastor". The church announced that it had closed all 74 churches and other facilities in South Korea and was cooperating with the authorities.
The church has missions in at least 15 countries outside of South Korea and has been charged in several countries, including England and New Zealand to be a cult-like organization, with excessive control and influence over its members. South Korea's CDC, in providing its infection statistics, described Shincheonji as "a Korean cult".
Media reports quoted former members as saying the services take place in tight spaces, where congregants sit next to each other on the floor.
The church's association with the virus has also caused alarm among some South Koreans, because members are known to hide their affiliation with the church in order to spread the religion. Infections in four different South Korean provinces have been linked to the church, according to South Korean officials.
Lee, 88, told his followers in an internal message that the virus was the work of the devil "to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji," according to the Yonhap news agency in South Korea. "Just as Job's faith was tested , is an attempt to destroy our progress ", he wrote.
Some of the infections may be linked to Lee's recent funeral in Cheongdo, a county adjacent to Daegu, considered a sacred place by church members because it is Lee's birthplace. Many of the newly detected cases were patients in a hospital in the same building as the funeral place; both deaths occurred in the hospital.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in instructed his team to investigate participants in the church service and Lee's brother's funeral.
The cases led the city of Daegu, South Korea's fourth largest city, with about 2.4 million, to a virtual standstill as local authorities advised residents to stay home. A K-pop concert scheduled for March, where BTS was part of the lineup, was canceled; all kindergartens and preschools have been advised to close for the time being.