Korea to limit PCR testing as omicron increases

Korea is limiting polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which have long remained the gold standard for COVID-19 diagnosis, to parts of the country where omicron is dominant, according to the Ministry of Health and Wellness Friday.

Effective from January 26 in three cities of Gwangju, Pyeongtaek, Anseong and throughout South Jeolla Province, the new testing protocol will be extended to the rest of Korea once omicron officially becomes dominant in the national scale.

Omicron appeared in 47% of newly sequenced samples this week, according to Friday’s announcement, up from 26% a week ago. A week earlier, the proportion of omicron in the samples analyzed was 12%. Fifty percent is considered the threshold for dominant status.

About 25 percent of positive samples are sequenced for the variants of concern on a weekly basis in Korea.

“The changes aim to prioritize vulnerable groups for access to limited medical resources, rather than managing the entire population,” the ministry said.

The ministry says Korea has built capacity to be able to perform up to 850,000 PCR tests per day.

Priority-Based PCR Tests

PCR testing for priority groups includes people who have been in close contact with confirmed patients; people aged 60 and over suspected of having COVID-19; and people who have tested positive on rapid antigen tests.

For people who are not prioritized, if they have symptoms, they should see a doctor at designated clinics to find out if they should be tested. The cost of each clinic visit is about 5,000 won ($4.19). The list of selected clinics for patients with symptoms is available at: mohw.go.kr/react/popup_200128_5.html.

Rapid test for COVID-19 pass with 24-hour expiry

Rapid antigen tests will replace PCR for COVID-19 passes, which requires people to show proof of a negative test or vaccination when entering public places. Previously, PCR was the only testing option for a pass.

As with PCR tests, rapid tests for the purpose of obtaining a pass must be carried out at test centers. Samples can be collected by healthcare professionals or the candidates themselves using nasal swabs. Home tests will not be recognized.

To be used as a pass, the negative rapid test must be obtained no later than 24 hours before entry.

PCR test only for international arrivals

All passengers entering Korea must submit a negative PCR test performed within 48 hours of arrival instead of 72 hours.

People can travel from the airport to their quarantine location using only COVID-19 proof taxis, buses and trains, unless they can drive their own car. The mandatory quarantine period after travel is 10 days.

Essential business travelers who are exempt from quarantine must work remotely for the first three days upon arrival.

Rapid Test Accuracy Issues

The Korean Society of Laboratory Medicine states that rapid antigen tests are less sensitive to omicron and recommends not relying on their use to detect infections.

Son Young-rae, spokesman for the Department of Health, said at Friday’s briefing that the rapid tests are “very accurate in detecting negative cases”, but carry the risk of false positives. The ministry says the rapid tests used here can detect negative cases with 99% accuracy.

By Kim Arin ([email protected])

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