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U.S. rep’s claim about Korean virus tests is refuted

Mar 17,2020
Korea’s medical authorities Sunday hit back at a U.S. lawmaker’s suggestion that Korean testing kits for the novel coronavirus were inconclusive, stressing Seoul was undertaking testing in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A spike in recent coronavirus cases in the United States was the focal point of a congressional hearing Wednesday, which devolved into a bitter partisan debate after Democrats accused the Donald Trump administration of failing to take a proactive response to testing.

One Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, pointed out that while early virus cases were detected at nearly the same time in Korea and the United States, the two countries diverged significantly in their capacity to test people for the virus, with Korea now being able to “test more people in a single day than we have in the past two months.”

In an apparent effort to refute the criticism of the administration, Rep. Mark Green, a Republican, contended that the emergency test kits Korea is using are less reliable than U.S. alternatives.

Citing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Green claimed while Korean kits only tested for the presence of immunoglobulin - an antibody produced by the human body in response to a viral infection - U.S. variants tested for multiple antibodies.

“I asked [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield] to compare the Covid-19 tests used by South Korea and the United States and explain why our test is so much better,” Green wrote on Twitter Thursday.

Health authorities in Seoul firmly denied the suggestion on Sunday, saying Korea confirms virus infections through RT-PCR tests, the only conclusive test recommended by the WHO.

“No country in the world at this moment conducts tests in any other way,” said Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of Seoul’s government-run National Institute for Health.

RT-PCR stands for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, a laboratory method used to identify the presence of coronavirus RNA in a bodily fluid sample like saliva or nasal swabs. The test’s accuracy is widely recognized by medical professionals and is used by all countries to formally diagnose virus infections.

“There is incorrect information questioning the reliability and accuracy of our RT-PCR tests circulating on YouTube and other sources, but they are absolutely untrue,” Kwon added.

Green may have misunderstood the FDA’s response, Kwon said, because “while a Korean company may have sought approval from the FDA on an immunoglobulin testing kit, [such a kit] has nothing to do with the way infections are tested domestically.”

The antibody test referred to by Green corresponds to what the CDC calls a serology test, which checks whether a person had an immune response to the new coronavirus, officially termed SARS-CoV-2.

“Researchers are currently working to develop the basic parameters for the test, which will be refined as more samples become available,” the CDC website read.

That kind of testing is used by scientists for surveillance and investigational purposes in order to trace the path taken by a virus among a given population.

According to Kwon, the serology method is just one of four types of testing kits developed by Korean drugmakers that are currently undergoing evaluation by the U.S. FDA.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]