Korea drew global attention after the government, in collaboration with the private sector, managed to quickly set up testing facilities and contact tracing methods, and effectively curbed the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Global consulting firm McKinsey & Company credits the success to this efficient public-private partnership.
Mass testing played a crucial role. This was enabled by biotech firm Seegene, which used an artificial intelligence (AI) based big data system to design a COVID-19 diagnostic test utilizing genetic modeling without the need of a sample. The process took three weeks; developing the test using standard techniques would have taken an estimated two to three months.
The government cross-checked laboratory results and fast-tracked approval of the test kits to scale up testing capacity.
The government also launched drive-through testing at 96 locations in 23 days. The testing process was streamlined to take 15 minutes, and minimizes direct contact, as the driver did not have to leave the vehicle.
This enabled a testing capacity of 20,000 people a day. Drive-through testing also eliminated the need to decontaminate spaces between patients. Automated testing systems reduced the time to obtain results.
The time to complete a test was reduced from 24 hours, Feb. 10, to 6 hours by Feb. 27.
The government authorized the private sector to conduct testing after falling short of testing capacity during the 2015 MERS epidemic when only government entities could carry out tests. In the case of COVID-19, private laboratories provided 90 percent of the country's testing capacity.
The government also cut down contact-tracing time from 24 hours in early February to 10 minutes at the end of March by incorporating a digital surveillance system that gathered information from 28 public and private organizations, including the police, mobile carriers and credit card companies.
This was enabled by amendments to the Personal Information Protection Act that went into effect in 2011. It imposes strict compliance requirements on entities collecting personal identification information, but also includes a "public interest override."
The public interest override refers to when compelling public interest in the disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the purpose of the exemption from disclosure.
The government used the override and, in 52 days, launched the platform that integrated information from the 28 institutions, slashing the contact tracing time.
"We are reinventing the way the public-private partnership is occurring," McKinsey & Company Korea Managing Partner Choi Won-sik said in an address made at the 2020 Korea Times Forum held at The Plaza Seoul hotel, Thursday.
He cited the contact tracing platform as an example of this partnership.
"Contact tracing sounds easy but it requires two things: application of technology, and cooperation from everybody."
"What that platform achieved was truly remarkable ― it used to take a full day but now this is down to 10 minutes. This new form of public-private partnership is a good benchmark for us learn to make sure that these forms can spread into other areas," Choi said.
The contact tracing information is shared with the public through apps such as Corona Map and Corona 100m, enabling people to avoid areas where there is a possibility of infection.
The Corona 100m app, developed by an independent company not affiliated with the Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC), saw 20,000 downloads per hour when infections peaked.
Apps were also used to track stocks of masks, when a spike in demand and hoarding resulted in a shortage of masks and skyrocketing prices.
The government intervened in the market to stabilize supply and lower prices. Most of the 23,000 nationwide pharmacies and IT firms such as Naver and Kakao took part in the government initiative, creating apps to provide information on the inventory of masks at pharmacies.
This resolved the issue of crowding at pharmacies, to prevent people returning empty-handed and ensure social distancing.
The government, partnering with private entities, was able to respond swiftly and effectively based on its investment in technology over the past decade. Administrative spending on technology increased by 1.5 times in 2019 from 2010.