Seoul (CNN) North Korea has announced an “explosive” outbreak of COVID-19 that has likely killed six people and infected more than 350,000, according to state media, raising fears of an impending and deadly crisis. in the isolated and impoverished nation.
The announcement comes a day after the country reported its first case of coronavirus, calling the situation a “major national emergency.”
This Thursday, North Korea reported 18,000 new “fever cases” and six deaths, one of which tested positive for the BA.2 subvariant of omicron, according to state media KCNA reported on Friday.
North Korea has not confirmed that all “fever” cases and deaths are covid-19, likely due to its limited testing capacity.
“A fever whose cause has not been identified has spread explosively across the country since the end of April,” the newspaper said. “So far, up to 187,800 people are being isolated.”
An outbreak could be disastrous for North Korea
An outbreak of covid-19 could prove disastrous for North Korea. The country’s dilapidated health infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating large numbers of patients with a highly infectious disease, and it is not known whether the nation has imported any coronavirus vaccines.
North Korea had not previously acknowledged any cases of coronavirus, though few believe the country of some 25 million people has been spared a virus that has infected millions of people around the world.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the state epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and acknowledged that the spread of the outbreak means there is a “vulnerable point” in the country’s epidemic prevention system, according to KCNA.
“It is the most important challenge and the supreme task facing our party to immediately reverse the public health crisis situation,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
After a meeting of the country’s powerful politburo on Thursday, North Korea locked down all cities and ordered the quarantine of “people with fever or abnormal symptoms,” KCNA said.
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A reporter from the Chinese state media CGTN published an unusual video from Pyongyang on Friday, recounting his experience on the ground.
“As far as we know, not many people in Pyongyang have been vaccinated, and medical and epidemic prevention facilities are scarce,” reporter Zang Qing said in a Weibo post.
“Because the capital is in lockdown, the food I have at home is only enough for a week. We are still waiting for what policy the government will announce next.”
Unrest in China
On Thursday, China said it was willing 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 at bay, despite the repercussions on trade with Beijing, an economic lifeline that the impoverished country needs so that its population does not go hungry.
“As comrades, neighbors and friends, China is ready to provide all its support to the DPRK in its fight against the epidemic,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing.
As China battles its own outbreak, China’s National Immigration Administration has urged Jilin province, which borders North Korea, to step up health inspections at its customs after North Korea reported its first COVID-19 case. .
Zero vaccines could spell disaster
North Korea is not believed to have received any covid-19 vaccines, despite being eligible for the global covid-19 vaccine exchange program, Covax.
In February, Covax reduced the number of doses allocated to North Korea because the country was unable to organize any shipments, according to Reuters.
Assuming that most of the North Korean population is not vaccinated, an outbreak in North Korea — which has limited testing capacity, inadequate medical infrastructure and has been isolated from the outside world — could quickly be deadly.
There are increasing calls on the country’s leaders to facilitate access to vaccines.
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“There is no evidence to show that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from covid-19. However, it has refused millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-run Covax programme,” Amnesty International East Asia researcher Boram Jang said in a statement.
“With the first official news of a covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing down this path could cost many lives and would be grossly negligent in defending the right to health.”
CNN’s Philip Wang contributed.
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