North Korea’s Covid outbreak likely ‘getting worse’, WHO says

The World Health Organization has cast doubts on North Korea’s claims of progress in the fight against a Covid-19 outbreak, saying it believes the situation is getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data.

North Korean state media has claimed the Covid wave has abated, after daily numbers of people with fever topped 390,000 about two weeks ago.

Pyongyang has never directly confirmed how many people have tested positive for the virus but experts suspect underreporting in the figures released through government-controlled media, making it difficult to assess the scale of the situation.

“We assume the situation is getting worse, not better,” World Health Organization (WHO) emergencies chief Michael Ryan said during a video briefing on Wednesday.

He said the WHO did not have access to any privileged information beyond the numbers publicly reported by state media.

“We have real issues in getting access to the raw data and to the actual situation on the ground,” Ryan said, adding that the WHO was working with South Korea and China to try to get a better picture and in a bid to get aid in.

North Korea has rejected jabs offered by the WHO and not vaccinated any of its roughly 25 million people.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported early on Thursday 96,600 “fevered cases” in 24 hours, for a total of 3.8 million cases since late April. No new deaths were announced, with 69 fatalities as of late last week.

It was the third consecutive daily tally below 100,000, down from a high of 390,000 daily cases in mid-May, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Despite having one of the worst health systems in the world, KCNA reported on Thursday that more than 95% of cases had recovered.

A poster outside the Pyongyang Department Store No 1 on 27 May depicts people wearing face masks and reads ‘Displaying beautiful communist virtues and traits’. Photograph: Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Ryan stressed the importance of reining in the outbreak in the impoverished country. “We have offered assistance on multiple occasions. We have offered vaccines on three separate occasions. We continue to offer,” he said.

He said the UN health agency has repeatedly cautioned against allowing the virus that causes Covid-19 to spread unchecked, among other things since it then is more likely to mutate and produce new, potentially more dangerous variants.

“We do not wish to see intense transmission of this disease in a mainly susceptible population, in a health system that has already weakened,” Ryan said. “This is not this is not good for the people of [North Korea]. This is not good for the region. This is not good for the world.”

KCNA said provinces were “intensifying” their anti-epidemic campaigns, including enforcing some lockdowns and coastal blockades, increasing production of drugs and medical supplies, and carrying out disinfection work. Key work such as farming continued, it claimed.

The North Korean premier, Kim Tok-hun, inspected a pair of pharmaceutical factories, amid a push to put the country’s drug industry on a “on a new higher level”, including meeting international standards, KCNA reported. “Sufficient production and supply of medicines serve as a prerequisite to protecting the people’s lives and health in the current rigorous anti-epidemic campaign,” he said.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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