SEOUL - South Korea will face another wave of coronavirus infections, with as many as 800 new cases a day by July, if the government does not introduce stricter social distancing guidelines, a prominent infectious disease specialist has warned.
The warning comes after the health authorities on Friday extended prevention and sanitation guidelines to protect against the coronavirus until daily new infections drop to single digits.
Ki Moran, a professor of cancer control and population health at the National Cancer Center, used mathematical modelling based on a snapshot of June 11 - where each infected person is estimated to have spread the virus to 1.79 people on average, a "reproduction factor R" of 1.79 - to project the situation in late June and July.
If the infection rate remains at this level, South Korea will report 254 new cases daily by June 25 and 826 by July 9, according to Ki's model.
The research, funded by the South Korean government, estimated that in the best scenario, with the current R value decreasing by half, there would be 23 new cases daily by June 25 and 4 by July 9.
"P, which stand for 'probability of infection' is lowered by wearing masks and washing hands, but the C – number of contacts made, (one of the) two key factors that determine the R - can only be reduced by intensive social distancing," Ki said.
New infections have persisted in the mid-double digits after several new clusters in the area around Seoul. There were 37 new cases on Sunday, taking the national tally to 12,121, with 277 deaths.
"We continue to carry out prevention measures in the Seoul area and even though the daily infections hover around the range of 50 every day, we actively conduct contact tracing monitor to bring the numbers under control," deputy director Kwon Jun-wook of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) told a briefing.
Other experts question whether South Koreans have the patience to accept the return to tough social distancing.
It would have been easier to reinstate social distancing if the guidelines had been more stringent from the beginning, said Jekarl Dong-wook, an assistant professor of laboratory medicine at the Catholic University of Korea.
South Korea has been widely praised for how it has handled the pandemic. The government is wary of losing that hard-won recognition, said Seol Dai-wu, an expert in vaccine development and a professor at Chung-Ang University.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Gerry Doyle)