South Korean authorities have ordered the airlifting of the entire crew of an anti-piracy ship stationed off the coast of East Africa after a massive COVID-19 outbreak that infected hundreds of sailors, marking the military's worst outbreak since the beginning of the health crisis.

On Tuesday, two top government officials apologized to the public for the outbreak, which has infected at least 247 out of the 301 sailors on board the navy destroyer. Authorities revealed that none of the crew members were vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. In a meeting of health officials, Prime Minister Kim Boo-Kyum expressed his sincere apologies for the government's failure to protect their soldiers.

Navy Ship COVID Outbreak

Defense Minister Suh Wook also released statements in a separate event discussing the incident and apologizing to the public, saying he commits to finding ways to improve the nation's antivirus measures for service members overseas.

South Korean officials deployed two military planes to begin transporting the sailors back to the country, where they will be given necessary treatment in hospitals or quarantine facilities when they arrive on Tuesday, the New York Times reported.

The massive ship, also known as Munmu the Great, first made its voyage for the Gulf of Aden in early February where it would conduct an eight-month anti-piracy mission. The departure was conducted shortly before the nation began its vaccination campaign. Efforts to deliver vaccines to the ship were made difficult by logistical issues.

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However, opposition lawmakers said the government fell short of providing sufficient support to its military personnel. Additionally, they claimed that the South Korean government did not take the outbreak seriously when it started last month.

While the administration has not revealed the source of the outbreak, there have been suggestions that suggest it is linked to a stop in June at an unspecified harbor in the area. Authorities deployed an immunized replacement crew to bring the ship back to the country, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. They also deployed another destroyer to be stationed in the region to continue the anti-piracy mission.

Surging Coronavirus Infections

At the beginning of the outbreak, one sailor showed symptoms of a cold, just one day after stopping at the port. However, the patient was not tested for COVID-19 and was not quarantined. Later, dozens of other crew members developed similar symptoms one week after the first. This prompted authorities to test crew members for the coronavirus infection using rapid testing kits, which resulted in negative results for all sailors, Aljazeera reported.

The incident comes as the country is also experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases in the mainland, with a reported 1,252 new infections on Sunday. For nearly two weeks, the average number of new cases in South Korea has risen to 1,100 per day, in what is considered the worst outbreak since the spread of the Delta variant.

South Korea has so far recorded 179,203 confirmed cases with 2,058 deaths related to the coronavirus. Authorities reported that about 31.4% of its population of 52 million people have been at least partially vaccinated and that 12.7% have been fully vaccinated, Reuters reported.

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