Infected South Korean Coronavirus Health Official Member of Secretive Religious Group Linked to Hundreds of Cases

A South Korean health official, who has tested positive for coronavirus, is reportedly a member of the Shincheonji religious group linked to hundreds of confirmed cases in the country. South Korea has raised its virus level to "red," the highest rating possible, with at least 883 infected in the country as of Monday. The government has announced "unprecedented powerful" measures to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The deadly virus has infected more than 78,800 people globally, with 77,042 cases confirmed in China, where the virus was first identified in Wuhan city of the Hubei province, according to the latest report on February 23 by the World Health Organization. It has claimed the lives of 2,445 people in China and 17 outside China, according to WHO's most recent report.

The unnamed South Korean health official is said to be the head of the Infection Preventive Medicine Department in Daegu, home to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), The South China Morning Post reported.

South Korean health authorities have raised concerns that the services held by SCJ, which sees members sitting on the floor in close proximity for periods of one to two hours, may have helped spread the virus.

The official, who was said to be in charge of the district's fight against the virus, tested positive. Fifty health officials he was working with have been quarantined in their homes as a precautionary measure, city mayor Kwon Young-jin has confirmed.

A police officer in Daegu and a school teacher at school in Gumi, a city near Daegu, both of whom tested positive for the coronavirus, are reportedly members of the SCJ.

Suspicions about the group being a major source of the recent spread of the virus in South Korea were heightened after hundreds of people were reportedly infected by a 61-year-old woman (referred to as Patient 31) who attended an SCJ service in Daegu. More than 450 of those infected have been identified as followers of the SCJ, The South China Morning Post reported.

More than half of the country's total coronavirus cases have been reported in Daegu, while most cases across the rest of the country, including in some of its most populous cities such as Busan, Daejeon, Incheon and Gwangju, were reported to be among a "Shincheonji cluster," according to a report on Monday by the Korea Centres for Disease Control (KCDC).

The nearly 9,500 people who joined the SCJ service that Patient 31 attended in Daegu are being tested and have been ordered to self-quarantine themselves, the country's vice health minister Kim Kang-lip said at a press briefing.

The church said it has "actively cooperated with the government" in a statement on its website.

"We have actively cooperated with the government to prevent and overcome the spread of COVID-19. In particular, the church members of the Daegu Church suffered a lot of damage and hurt," the statement said.

"Shinchonji Jesus Church decided to cooperate with the government to provide a list of Shincheonji saints and conduct a full survey. We will also make sure that our students are tested forCOVID-19.

"Everything will be done on the premise that the government will devise ways to maintain and secure the privacy of the Saints," the statement added.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that the country has raised its virus alert level to "red", the highest it's been in more than a decade since the measures it took during the H1N1 outbreak, noting it is taking "special" steps to trace all those in connection with the SJC to test them for the virus.

Shincheonji Church Daegu Coronavirus February 2020
South Korean health officials spray disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu on February 21, 2020. Getty Images

The president asked health authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of all those who have attended the funeral of the brother of the leader of the sect, which was held at a hospital in Daegu earlier this month.

"We shouldn't rely simply on the information that Shincheonji offers," Moon told his cabinet members.

"Let's investigate thoroughly the attendees of its services and the funeral," he added.

All of the nearly 1,100 SCJ facilities across the country have been closed, including in Seoul, the South Korean capital, which is home to nearly half of the country's population of nearly 51 million people, and their addresses have been made public. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, accused the church of "playing a key role" in spreading the virus, The South China Morning Post reported.

Some critics of the secretive church have reported concerns over there being "undercover churches" and other hidden SCJ facilities that have yet to be accounted for.

"Although the situation is grave, we can overcome it," Moon emphasized.

"The government has adequate ability and confidence to control and manage the spread of the infectious disease. Trust and cooperation are the way to win the fight against the virus.

SCJ was founded in 1984 by-old Lee Man-hee, who claims to be a prophet sent by Jesus Christ. The church reportedly has around 300,000 followers in nearly 600 locations across 29 countries.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of the COVID-19 virus as of February 24.

statista, coronavirus cases, covid-19, 2019nCOV
A map showing confirmed cases of COVID-19 since Monday, February 24. Statista

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