At least one person in North Korea has died from COVID-19, and hundreds of thousands have developed fever symptoms, indicating the potentially deadly extent of the country’s first verified pandemic epidemic.
The data reflects an extraordinary admission of a “explosive” epidemic in a country that has reported no previous verified cases since the pandemic began, and it might spell disaster for the isolated dictatorship in terms of public health, economics, and politics.
Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s new president, who took office this week, wants to offer COVID-19 vaccinations and other medical assistance to North Koreans, and his administration would negotiate details with Pyongyang, according to his spokesman on Friday.
Later on Friday, Yoon told reporters that he planned to propose having working-level discussions with North Korea through the country’s unification ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean matters, according to South Korean news outlet.
Given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, experts believe the statistics disclosed thus far reflect a small proportion of the illnesses, which might result in thousands of fatalities in one of the world’s only two countries without a COVID-19 immunization program.
A fever of unknown origin has “explosively spread nationally” since late April, according to the official news agency. About 187,800 individuals are being treated in isolation.
According to media, around 350,000 people have displayed indications of the fever, with 18,000 people reporting symptoms for the first time on Thursday. Around 162,200 people have been treated, but it’s unclear how many of them have tested positive for COVID-19.
According to media, at least six persons have died after developing fever symptoms, with one of those instances verified to have caught the Omicron strain of the virus.
North Korea has been testing roughly 1,400 individuals every week, according to Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health-care programs in the nation, which isn’t nearly enough to examine 350,000 people with symptoms.
“What’s more concerning is the sheer number of people who are symptomatic,” he continued. “Assuming a case fatality rate of 1% and that the epidemic is caused by an Omicron strain of COVID-19, North Korea should predict 3,500 deaths from this outbreak.”
According to media, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command center on Thursday to assess the situation and reactions after proclaiming a “gravest state of emergency” and ordering a nationwide lockdown.
The outbreak began in late April in Pyongyang, according to state media, without expanding on possible causes. On April 15 and 25, the city conducted numerous huge public events, including a military parade and large gatherings where most individuals were not wearing masks.
“The simultaneous spread of fever with the capital region as a center reveals that there is a vulnerable spot in the epidemic prevention system we have already constructed,” said Kim, who attended some of the activities, according to media.
Kim stated that isolating and treating persons with fevers is a high priority, and that scientific treatment methods and strategies, as well as pharmaceutical supply measures, are required.
According to media, health officials are attempting to organize testing and treatment systems as well as strengthen disinfection efforts.
The virus’s quick spread emphasizes the risk of a catastrophic disaster in a country that lacks medical resources and has denied foreign immunization assistance while keeping its borders closed.
Analysts believe the epidemic would exacerbate the country’s already precarious food situation this year, since the lockdown will impede the country’s “all-out” struggle against drought and labor mobilization.
North Korea announced last year that it has built its own COVID testing equipment using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). However, it turned down vaccine supplies from the COVAX global sharing program and China, potentially putting the great majority of people in a youthful society at danger of illness.
North Korea has not made any fresh requests for assistance in combating the outbreak, but some experts believe the admission signals that the leadership would soon accept vaccinations or other aid.
Yoon’s statement came a day after his candidate for unification minister, Kwon Young-se, announced during his confirmation hearing that he would fight for humanitarian help for the North, including COVID therapy, syringes, and other medical supplies.
On Friday, a spokesman for the unification ministry stated that roughly 95.4 billion won ($74.1 million) from an inter-Korean cooperation fund will be used to facilitate health and medical exchanges.
A US State Department official said the US had no intentions to supply vaccinations to North Korea but backed worldwide efforts to help the country’s most vulnerable citizens, encouraging Pyongyang to help.