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North Korea: Six dead, 350,000 “fevers” as coronavirus spreads “explosively”

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un on June 30, 2019.
Enlarge / North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un on June 30, 2019.

At least six people in North Korea have died and more than 350,000 have contracted an unusual fever since late April in an outbreak that “explosively spread nationwide,” North Korean state media said Friday.

On Thursday, 18,000 new cases were reported, 187,800 people were in quarantine, and 162,200 had reportedly recovered. The cases are being defined by “a fever whose cause couldn’t be identified,” according to The New York Times.

The numbers come just a day after the authoritarian country acknowledged for the first time during the pandemic that the coronavirus was spreading within its borders.

Officials reported Thursday that a group of people with fevers in Pyongyang, the capital, were tested Sunday and found to be infected with the BA.2 omicron subvariant. North Korea declared a “maximum emergency” and immediately implemented a nationwide lockdown. It’s unclear how many people have been tested for the virus and tested positive, but state reports noted that at least one of the six people who died also tested positive for BA.2.

Outside experts say that the numbers reported may only be a fraction of the cases and deaths, given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, fractured health care system, and secretive nature. The country’s roughly 26 million people are thought to be largely unvaccinated. North Korean officials have previously rejected offers of vaccines from China and the United Nations-backed program COVAX.

Risks and threats

But some experts believe that the abrupt admission of coronavirus cases may be a signal that the health situation is dire and the country is now willing to receive offers. On Friday, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Seoul would offer medical aid, including vaccines. A spokesperson for the president told The Wall Street Journal that North Korea hadn’t requested the aid and hasn’t yet issued a response to the offer, but South Korean officials will consult with the North about a possible delivery.

Even if North Korea accepts the aid, the distribution of vaccines may be difficult, the Journal noted. The country lacks the cold-chain infrastructure needed to properly transport and store mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Widespread fuel shortages and limited access to health clinics in rural areas also complicate matters. The country is also experiencing a food crisis, resulting in widespread undernourishment.

“North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable to deal with this pandemic,” Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times. “The international community should offer medicine for COVID-19 related symptoms, COVID-19 treating antiviral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for vaccine preservation, including fridges, generators, and gasoline.”

In addition to the devastating effects the pandemic virus could wreak on North Korea’s population, experts worry that the country could become a breeding ground for yet more dangerous variants. And the country continues to pose a more established threat: Just hours after reporting its first coronavirus cases, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles toward the sea, its sixteenth weapons demonstration this year.

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