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(LEAD) Cheonghae unit members believed to have contracted COVID-19 at port in Gulf of Guinea: probe

All News 16:20 August 10, 2021

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details, comments in paras 2-3, 8)

SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- Members of the Cheonghae unit are presumed to have contracted COVID-19 while docked at a port in the Gulf of Guinea in late June to get local supplies, a joint investigation team said Tuesday.

The team, composed of health authorities and military officials, concluded that the first patient from the anti-piracy unit may have been infected with the coronavirus after coming into contact with outsiders or supplies while anchored in a West African port.

The team said the destroyer departed from Oman and sailed through the Suez Canal and Greece in the first two weeks of June and docked at the port in the Gulf of Guinea from June 28 to July 1.

A total of 272 members, or 90 percent of the 301-member unit, tested positive for COVID-19, marking the nation's worst military cluster infection, and all of the patients have now been released from medical facilities after making full recoveries.

"Members of the Cheonghae unit completed the two-week quarantine before their overseas dispatch, and it is believed that the virus could only have infiltrated the unit once the ship was docked at the port," the joint team by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency and the defense ministry said.

The team said some sailors showed symptoms of a cold within seven days after the Navy destroyer stayed in the Gulf of Guinea, and the genetic analysis discovered they were infected with the same variant of COVID-19 reported in the region.

Genomic sequencing on 64 cases showed they had contracted the highly transmissible delta variant, it said, raising possibilities of others being infected with the same strain.

The investigators said the virus seems to have rapidly spread in the Naval unit due to the closed, crowded environment where sailors stay close to each other. They said the belated testing and the more contagious delta variant contributed to the mass infection.

In the July 20, 2021, file photo, members of the Cheonghae unit get off a KC-330 multirole aerial tanker after it arrives at an air base in Seongnam, south of Seoul. A total of 272 of the 301-member unit on an anti-piracy mission off East Africa have tested positive for COVID-19. (Yonhap)

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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