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Samsung heir apologizes over MERS outbreak at its hospital

Lee Jae-yong, heir apparent to South Korea's top conglomerate Samsung Group, offered an apology Tuesday over a massive outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome at a group hospital, pledging support for the quick containment of the viral disease.

Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul has been blamed as a major source of infections and has voluntarily shut down most of its operations after nearly half of all transmissions occurred there.

Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jay-yong apologizes for patients' infections of MERS at Samsung Medical Center at a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jay-yong apologizes for patients' infections of MERS at Samsung Medical Center at a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

"I bow my head and sincerely apologize to the nation for the immense suffering and concern that Samsung Medical Center has caused," said Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., the flagship of the conglomerate.

"Especially, I feel sorry about those who have passed away due to MERS, their bereaved families, the patients and all others who have suffered from the disease. I, myself, feel devastated and fully responsible." 

Lee vowed to take all measures to support government efforts to bring the disease under control at an early date.

"The hospital will take full responsibility for the treatment of the patients and we will make best efforts to prevent a reoccurrence after a thorough investigation," he said. "Samsung will work closely with the authorities concerned and make all-out efforts to contain the MERS outbreak quickly."

Lee further said Samsung will conduct a complete overhaul of Samsung Medical Center as soon as the MERS outbreak is brought under control.

Samsung Medical Center has been under fire after it was revealed that the hospital overlooked a MERS patient who had spent more than two days at its emergency room before being confirmed with the diagnosis. The patient apparently came in contact with 900 people during those days. 

It is a rare move for the only son of chairman Lee Kun-hee, who has been hospitalized at Samsung Medical Center since May last year after suffering a heart attack, to appear before the press as he is known for his low-key attitude.

"My father's been lying at this hospital for over a year. I understand the distress and anxiety that the patients and their families have suffered," he added.

The hospital has repeatedly said there is no plan for a transfer of chairman Lee out of the ward.

It also marks the first time that Samsung Group has made an official apology, taking responsibility for the spread of the potentially deadly virus. Only the presidents of the group affiliates offered an apology last Wednesday.

Song Jae-hoon, the head of Samsung Medical Center who was also at the briefing, admitted that the hospital has failed to tackle the disease at its early stage of spread.

"We had our weak spots with the initial response to the virus and figuring out potential patients. We are deeply sorry," he said.

The hospital will set up a committee comprising outside experts to revamp its anti-crisis management system, including care for patients at the emergency room, Song said.

Regarding whether the hospital will extend its shutdown period, he said it will depend on a decision from the health authorities who have been inspecting the hospital on a daily basis.

Lee Jay-yong visited the anti-MERS headquarters located inside the hospital last Thursday to apologize for the failure and discuss countermeasures. 

As of early Tuesday, South Korea had 175 MERS patients with the death toll standing at 27. Since its outbreak on May 20, over 13,000 people have been subject to quarantine, with more than 2,800 still in isolation for possible infection. (Yonhap)

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