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The Telegraph

Asymptomatic spread to blame as Asian countries struggle to contain resurgence of Covid

Escalating coronavirus outbreaks could prove a “real test” for Asian countries that have so far maintained control of Covid-19 without stringent lockdowns, experts have warned. On Friday South Korea reported more than 500 new Covid-19 cases for the second consecutive day, a figure not seen since March, while infections have jumped by 41 per cent in Japan over the last week. Both these countries have been much praised for their success in keeping large outbreaks at bay. Meanwhile Malaysia saw new cases surpass 2,000 for the first time and in Hong Kong, where infections were hovering in single digits, authorities detected 81 cases on Thursday. Dale Fisher, a professor in infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore, told the Telegraph that the latest resurgences could prove a “real test case” for governments. “We’ve been going for a year now and these surges are some of the biggest we’ve seen,” he said, adding that the upticks are largely driven by small clusters rather than large super-spreading events. “This suggests Covid might be a bit more intrinsic in the community.” In South Korea there are growing concerns that its much-lauded contact tracing system may be stretched as a result. While the majority of cases have been detected in the Seoul metropolitan area, the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) has warned that the latest increase in cases is not concentrated in specific regions or groups. This contrasts to previous outbreaks. In February, for instance, South Korea was able to contain a super-spreading event linked to a church in Daegu through strict but localised control measures and rigorous contact tracing. The KDCA added that the rise in asymptomatic patients – they accounted for roughly 40 per cent of new infections, compared to 20-30 per cent in June – has triggered an increase in untraceable clusters of Covid, while cold weather has pushed people indoors where the virus spreads more easily. Hospital capacity has also been called into question. This week the Prime Minister, Chung Sye-kyun, warned that daily infections could surpass 1,000, triggering a shortage of intensive care beds if the current uptick continues for more than a fortnight. Prof Fisher said that the surge may be driven in part by fatigue but also “overconfidence, because the response in these countries have been successful to date”. “Whether they can really control this will be testimony to their strategies,” he said. “But I really hope in Asia we can control it with public health measures rather than needing a lockdown.” The reopening of nightlife in several countries, including Hong Kong and South Korea, has also driven the resurgence, Prof Fisher added. “You could argue they pushed the bar a bit with reopening nightclubs and bars, but it’s about finding the sweet spot between the economy, health and social,” he said. “It will be interesting to see, though, if they can tweak the social restrictions and improve behaviours to get numbers down, or if they have to go into a lockdown light.” This week the government has imposed reimposed strict social distancing rules on the capital city and its surrounding areas, closing nightclubs and bars, introducing restaurant curfews and limiting religious services – only a month after similar measures were eased. Meanwhile in Japan Tokyo reported 570 new Covid cases on Friday, a new record for the capital city, while shorter opening hours have been imposed on bars, karaoke lounges and restaurants in Osaka’s hotspots. The country’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has called the next three weeks a “critical time” amid growing concerns that both hospitals and the contact tracing system could be pushed to the brink. The country is also scaling back two contentious subsidy schemes – Go to Travel and Go to Eat – which were designed to stimulate domestic tourism and eating out, after it became clear the programme was a driving force of the third wave. “I think this just goes to show that there is vulnerability in relaxation, which no one is immune from,” said Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary, adding that Covid fatigue is kicking in across the globe. But he stressed that while the rising numbers are “alarming”, especially given the large elderly population in countries including Japan, Asian nations are still much better placed than much of the world to respond to any resurgence. “There are two reasons – firstly comprehensive testing has been in place for much longer, but I think the population is probably more compliant in Japan and South Korea,” he said. Prof Fisher, who is also chair of the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, added that governments “will be able to ramp up contact tracing, ensure people are isolated and quarantined, that sense of community responsibility is pretty good.” He also said that he said that border closures make countries in Asia “less vulnerable to what the guy next door is doing” – while some countries are struggling, cases have fallen by six per cent in southeast Asia in the last seven days, according to WHO figures. 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