On Thursday, North Korea reported 18,000 new “fever cases” and six deaths, one of which tested positive for the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, state media KCNA reported on Friday.
North Korea has not confirmed that all “fever” cases and deaths are Covid-19, probably due to its limited testing capacity.
“A fever whose cause could not be identified explosively spread across the country since late April,” the newspaper said. “At present, up to 187,800 people are being isolated.”
An outbreak of Covid-19 could prove disastrous for North Korea. It is unlikely that the country’s dilapidated health infrastructure is up to the task of treating a large number of patients with a highly contagious disease, and the country is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines.
North Korea had not previously recognized any cases of coronavirus, although few believe that a country of about 25 million people has been spared by a virus that has infected millions worldwide.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the state headquarters for the prevention of epidemics on Thursday and acknowledged that the spread outbreak meant there was a “vulnerable point” in the country’s epidemic prevention system, according to the KCNA.
In photos of the meeting published by state media, Kim is seen wearing a surgical mask as he steps in and leaves the meeting room. Officials accompanying him are also shown wearing masks throughout.
“This is the most important challenge and highest task facing our party to turn around the immediate crisis of public health,” Kim said, according to the KCNA.
After a meeting of the country’s powerful politburo on Thursday, North Korea closed all cities and ordered “people with fever or abnormal symptoms” in quarantine, the KCNA said.
A reporter for the Chinese state media CGTN on Friday released a rare video from Pyongyang that tells about his experience on earth.
“As far as we know, not many people in Pyongyang have been vaccinated and the medical and epidemic prevention facilities are in short supply,” said journalist Zang Qing in a Weibo post.
“Because the capital is locked, the food I have at home is only enough for a week. We are still waiting to see what policy the government will announce next time.”
On Thursday, China said it was ready to provide support to North Korea in its fight against Covid-19.
North Korea’s borders have been sealed since January 2020 to keep the virus in check, despite contagious effects on trade with Beijing, an economic lifeline that the poor country needs to prevent its population from starving.
“As comrades, neighbors and friends, China is ready to provide full support to the DPRK in its fight against the epidemic,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a briefing.
South Korea and the United States also agreed to continue discussions on ways to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea with the international community, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a press release.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke in a call on Friday, sharing concerns about the Covid-19 situation in North Korea, the ministry said. Both countries are open to dialogue with the Nordic countries, they said.
Zero vaccines can mean disaster
North Korea is not believed to have received any Covid vaccinations, despite being eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing program, Covax.
Provided that most of North Korea’s population is unvaccinated, an outbreak in North Korea – which has limited testing capabilities, inadequate medical infrastructure and which has isolated itself from the outside world – can quickly become fatal.
Calls are rising for the country’s leadership to provide access to vaccines.
“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unscrupulous neglect of upholding the right to health.”
In February, Covax reportedly reduced the number of doses assigned to North Korea because the country failed to arrange any shipments, according to Reuters.
A spokesman for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said Covax had switched to “needs-based vaccine allocations” and “has not currently committed to any volume” for North Korea.
“If the country decides to launch a Covid-19 immunization program, vaccines may be made available based on Covax target criteria and technical considerations to enable the country to meet international immunization targets,” the spokesman said.
From CNN’s Philip Wang contributed.