Nearly All 301 Crew Members Aboard South Korean Warship Infected With COVID

Nearly all 301 crew members aboard South Korean navy warship Munmu the Great were infected with COVID-19 while stationed off East Africa, the Associated Press reported.

The entire crew left for their anti-piracy mission unvaccinated in February, before South Korea began rolling out vaccines. Over the past few days, 247 of 301 crew members tested positive and all returned to South Korea near its capital Seoul by military planes Tuesday evening. The virus outbreak is the largest within South Korea's military as the country combats surging COVID-19 cases.

South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the government is "very sorry for failing to carefully take care of the health of our soldiers who are devoting themselves to the country," in comments that were broadcasted.

The sailors arrived at a military airport Tuesday night and went to hospitals and quarantine facilities. They will be tested again for COVID-19, health officials said. South Korea has embarked on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden since 2009.

South Korean Warship Munmu the Great
Nearly all 301 crew members aboard South Korean warship Munmu the Great became infected with COVID-19. In this photo, Munmu the Great (DDH-976) docks at the port of Manila on September 2, 2019. George Calvelo/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

In a separate address, Defense Minister Suh Wook said he "feels heavy responsibility for (the outbreak) and offers words of sincere apology" to the sailors, their families and the public. He said the government will work out measures to prevent similar outbreaks involving South Korean troops dispatched abroad.

After arriving at a military airport near Seoul, media photos showed masked sailors waving their hands through the windows as their buses left the airport.

The cause of infections on the 4,400-ton-class destroyer hasn't been announced. But military authorities earlier suspected the outbreak might have begun when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.

The military planes dispatched to bring back the sailors carried other navy personnel who are to sail the Munmu the Great back to South Korea in a journey expected to take one month. Another South Korean destroyer was on its way to the area to replace the Munmu the Great, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is battling its worst surge in the pandemic at home.

On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,278 new virus cases. It was the 14th day in a row that it has reported more than 1,000 new cases.

Since the pandemic began, South Korea has reported 180,481 infections and 2,059 deaths.

South Korean Warship COVID-19 Infection
Nearly all 301 crew members aboard South Korean warship Munmu the Great became infected with COVID-19. In this pic, people watch a TV showing an image of South Korean service members wearing protective clothes disinfect inside Munmu the Great during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo