South Korea will airlift dozens of sailors from a warship involved in anti-piracy operations in the seas off Africa after the military confirmed its biggest-ever outbreak of coronavirus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) has said in the worst-ever outbreak in the military.
A total of 247 sailors from the 301-strong Cheonghae unit tested positive, Yonhap news agency cited the JCS as saying on Monday.
The unit first reported six COVID-19 cases last week, which led to virus tests being conducted on the entire crew, it added.
Most of the sailors are being isolated on board the ship, Munmu the Great, although 16 have been sent to hospital for treatment.
All the crew members are expected to return home on Tuesday after the government sent two transporter planes to collect them.
The destroyer, part of an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and Straits of Hormuz, will be piloted back home by a replacement team of sailors. Crews are usually rotated every six months.
The outbreak is the most serious since the military reported its first COVID-19 case in February last year, amid mounting criticism of the armed forces’ response to the disease within their ranks.
No one in the unit was vaccinated as they had left South Korea before the country began its inoculation campaign.
“We will review and supplement military guidelines on the management of troops overseas, including how to respond to infectious diseases,” Yonhap cited a defence ministry official as saying.
The infections appear to have begun after the vessel docked at an African port at the end of June to load supplies, Yonhap said.
One sailor showed symptoms of a cold, one day after the destroyer left the port. He was not tested for COVID-19 and was not quarantined.
After a dozen others developed similar symptoms about a week later, the authorities conducted COVID-19 tests with rapid testing kits, instead of the more accurate PCR tests, which found them all negative. It was only when six of the samples were sent for PCR tests that the first cases were confirmed, according to the officials.
About 73 percent of the roughly 1,300 troops on overseas missions have now been fully vaccinated according to the ministry.