Coronavirus Peaking in South Korea?

Is the infection rate for new coronavirus cases in South Korea peaking?


By James Picerno

Unclear, although the latest data suggests that’s a possibility offering what may be a light at the end of the tunnel for the country and the rest of the world. Yes, that’s a highly speculative proposition at this point, but it’s also a possibility worth exploring (and monitoring as new numbers are published in the days ahead).

Why focus on South Korea? Three reasons. First, the data is reliable. As a democracy with a high level of technological sophistication, the numbers are arguably second to none for dependability, at least by the standards of available coronavirus numbers. Second, until a few days ago, South Korea had the highest number of reported cases outside of China and more data is generally better for modeling. Third, South Korea’s data set begins in late-January, a relatively early start date: Jan. 22. In short, this is about as good as it gets for now from a statistical perspective for tracking Covid-19’s trajectory and forecasting its path. (Note: the raw data is available via Johns Hopkins here.)

With those caveats in mind, near-term projections of South Korea’s cumulative reported cases imply that we could be near a peak for the country. If that proves to be correct, the peaking implies that other nations will experience something similar in the near term. Given the limited data and the still-evolving understanding of Covid-19, the projection should be viewed cautiously—extremely cautiously. That said, it’s encouraging to see the median point forecast ticking down. Alas, the forward median estimates quickly rebound. But looking further out in time suffers greater uncertainty than near-term forecasts and so we may be looking at signs of peaking. (Note: the forecasts are based on combining eight models listed here, excepting vector autoregression, which isn’t relevant for Covid-19 univariate data set).

Here’s also encouraging but still-preliminary data on the mortality rate for South Korea. The latest numbers indicate a 0.7% rate of death, which is comparable to the seasonal flu and well below the 3%-plus range that some medical professionals have estimated.

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One country’s data over a 50-day period is far from definitive. The uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 still overwhelms and so the available numbers could be misleading. Indeed, that’s the working assumption. But for now, the front line for optimism, if we can call it that, is South Korea. We’ll know more in the days ahead. Meanwhile, will monitor the incoming numbers and report back soon.