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Samsung heir apologizes in public for MERS spread

SEOUL, South Korea, June 23: The heir of the Samsung business group made a deep bow in apology as criticism mounts on a Samsung hospital for its role in spreading the Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Lee Jae-yong, 47, apologized to the MERS victims and patients Tuesday in his first public speech since taking over the Samsung Foundation last month. He succeeded his ailing father in leading the charity foundation that owns Samsung Medical Center.

Out of 175 MERS patients in South Korea, 85 were patients, relatives, or staff at the Samsung hospital or its visitors. One of the MERS patients was a Samsung contract worker who was left out of quarantine and continued to work at the hospital until the person was confirmed to have the disease. Samsung Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in South Korea, draws patients from around the country. The hospital stopped receiving patients last week.

“Our Samsung Medical Center could not stop the infection and the spread of the MERS, causing so much pain and worries to the public,” Lee said in his rare public speech that was televised nationwide on his 47th birthday. “I bow my head to apologize.”

As South Korea tried to contain the spread of the disease that killed 27 since the outbreak in May, there were growing calls to investigate why authorities did not act early on Samsung Medical Center after a patient there was confirmed to have MERS last month.

In an editorial last week, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo called for an investigation on a possible tie between authorities and Samsung Medical Center, asking why health authorities did not step in early to oversee the hospital’s response to the disease.

The MERS spread through Samsung Medical Center is a blow to Lee who is expected to inherit South Korea’s largest business group from his father.

Market watchers believe that Lee, vice chairman at Samsung Electronics Co. but not on the company’s board, has yet to prove his leadership ability to lead the group that does business in consumer electronics, shipbuilding, insurance, construction and amusement parks.

His father Lee Kun-hee, 73, chairman at Samsung Electronics Co., remains hospitalized at Samsung Medical Center since suffering a heart attack in May last year.