North Korea says six dead after admitting Covid outbreak for first time

Six people have died amid an “explosive” spread of fever, North Korean state media has announced, a day after it admitted for the first time ever that an outbreak of Covid had occurred.

There were 187,800 people being treated in isolation after a fever of unidentified origin spread in the country since late April, the official KCNA news agency reported.

Around 350,000 people had shown signs of that fever with 162,200 of them treated so far. At least six people who showed fever symptoms died, with one of those cases confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, KCNA said.

The North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, visited the anti-virus command centre on Tuesday, a day after declaring the “gravest state emergency” and ordering a national lockdown.

Until then, North Korea had claimed it had not recorded a single Covid case since it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.

The discovery of the Omicron variant presents a potentially serious risk to North Korea, which has not vaccinated any of its 25 million people, according to experts, and its poorly resourced healthcare system would also struggle to cope with a major outbreak.

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The country so far has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution programme, possibly because administering the jabs would require international monitoring.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the regime’s public acknowledgment of coronavirus cases meant “the public health situation must be serious”.

“This does not mean North Korea is suddenly going to be open to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul,” he said.

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