North Korea reports first death from COVID-19 as fever spreads ‘explosively’

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© Reuters. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits state headquarters to prevent emergency epidemics as North Korea announces its first outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 12, 2022, in this photo published by North Korea. Korea

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From Hyunghi Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – At least one person confirmed to be suffering from COVID-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown symptoms of fever, state media reported on Friday, offering hints of the potentially horrific scale. of the first confirmed outbreak of the pandemic in the country.

The figures represent an unprecedented recognition of an “explosive” outbreak in a country that has not reported previously confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic and could mark a severe public health, economic and political crisis for the isolated regime.

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office this week, plans to provide vaccines against COVID-19 and other medical care to North Koreans, and his government will discuss details with Pyongyang, his spokesman said on Friday. gives details.

Yun told reporters later Friday that he plans to propose working-level talks with North Korea through the country’s unification ministry, which deals with inter-Korean issues, South Korean News1 reported.

Experts said that given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, the figures released so far probably represent a small proportion of infections, which could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries in the world without a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

About 187,800 people have been treated in isolation after a fever of unknown origin “spread explosively across the country” in late April, the official KCNA news agency reported.

Approximately 350,000 people have shown signs of the fever, including 18,000 who recently reported such symptoms on Thursday, KCNA said. About 162,200 were treated, but it is not specified how many tested positive for COVID-19.

At least six people with symptoms of fever have died, and one of these cases has been confirmed to be infected with the Omicron virus variant, KCNA reported.

Kee Park at Harvard Medical School, which has worked on health projects in North Korea, said the country tests about 1,400 people each week, which is not nearly enough to examine 350,000 people with symptoms.

“What is more worrying is the huge number of people with symptoms,” he added. “Using a conservative mortality rate of 1% and assuming the jump is due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak.

“The worst emergency”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command center on Thursday to check the situation and responses after declaring a “worst-case state of emergency” and ordering a national blockade, KCNA said.

State media reported that the epidemic began in the capital Pyongyang in late April, without specifying the potential causes. The city hosted several mass public events on April 15th and 25th, including a military parade and large gatherings where most people did not wear masks.

Kim, who attended some of these events, “criticizes that the simultaneous spread of fever with the metropolitan area as a center shows that there is a vulnerability in the epidemic prevention system that we have already identified,” KCNA said.

Kim said isolating and treating people with fever is a top priority, while calling for scientific treatment methods and tactics and drug delivery measures.

In another report, KCNA said health authorities were trying to set up testing and treatment systems and step up disinfection work.

The rapid spread of the virus underscores the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources and has refused international vaccination aid while keeping its borders closed.

Analysts say the epidemic could worsen the country’s already difficult food situation this year, with the blockade hampering its “comprehensive fight” against drought and labor mobilization.

CALLS FOR ASSISTANCE

North Korea said last year that it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment for COVID testing. But he turned down vaccine supplies from the global COVAX-China sharing program, likely leaving the vast majority of people in a relatively young society at higher risk of infection.

North Korea has so far not issued new calls for help in countering the epidemic, but some observers have been optimistic that the revelation is a signal that the government will soon adopt vaccines or other aid.

Yun’s promise of support came a day after Kuon Yang, his union ministerial candidate, said at a confirmation hearing that he would push for humanitarian aid for the North, including COVID treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.

A spokesman for the unification ministry said on Friday that about 95.4 billion won ($ 74.1 million) from the inter-Korean co-operation fund had been earmarked to facilitate exchanges in health and medicine.

A spokesman for the US State Department said he had no plans to send vaccines to North Korea, but supported international efforts to help vulnerable people there, calling on Pyongyang to facilitate the work.

(1 $ = 1 287 0400 won)

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