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Why the panic? South Korea’s MERS response questioned

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 24 June 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h3403
  1. Andrew Jack, editor, FirstFT, Financial Times, London, UK
  1. andrew.jack{at}

Andrew Jack reports from Seoul on how government secrecy, poor infection control, and a lack of preparedness allowed the latest MERS outbreak to spark panic in South Korea

The streets, shops, and metros in Seoul are suddenly far emptier, but there has been one striking convergence with overcrowded Tokyo in recent weeks. Since the identification of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in the country, many people are wearing face masks—something usually more associated with Japan.

The spread of the virus from the Gulf into South Korea has caused concern and some mystery. While aspects of the response by the South Korean authorities have been positive and well intentioned, their initial response triggered criticism and stoked unnecessary domestic fears—of which widespread use of face masks has been one consequence.

MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since infected more than 1330 people and killed over 470 around the world.1 It was diagnosed in a patient in South Korea on 20 May this year and has since led to at least 166 cases and 24 deaths2 in 72 healthcare facilities.

Experts remain unsure why the largest outbreak of MERS outside the Middle East has emerged in Korea. But they have so far ruled out any sign of …

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