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North Korea admits to ‘explosive’ outbreak of COVID, then claims a miraculous recovery

Last week, North Korea, one of only two countries in the world without a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, reported its first COVID-related deaths, while hundreds of thousands of others exhibited fever symptoms.

But this week, in a remarkable display of recuperative ability, a million citizens had already recovered, the country said on Wednesday (18 May).

Last week's statement represented an unprecedented admission of an “explosive” outbreak in a country that had had no previous confirmed cases since the pandemic began, reports Reuters.

On Sunday (15 May) there had been 42 fever-related fatalities, according to NPR, and hundreds of thousands of additional patients with fevers as authorities mobilised more than 1m health and other workers to try to suppress the outbreak.

The Korean News Agency said people were being treated in isolation after “a fever of unidentified origin that has spread explosively nationwide since late April”.

Last Friday (13 May), 350,000 people had shown signs of that fever, and by Sunday, the reported total was 820,620. This week (Wednesday) it announced 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths, reports AP News. Those figures raise its totals to 62 deaths and more than 1.7m cases since late April. At least 691,170 remain in quarantine, the state news agency said.

Global experts and WHO say it is unclear how more than 1m people recovered so quickly when limited medicine, medical equipment and health facilities exist to treat the country’s impoverished, unvaccinated population of 26m. Some experts believe Korea is simply releasing people from quarantine after their fevers subside.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that North Korea has not responded to its request for more data about its outbreak.

Experts said that given the country’s limited testing capabilities, the numbers released could possibly represent only a small fraction of the infections, which could lead to thousands of deaths.

Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on healthcare projects in North Korea, said the country had been testing about 1,400 people each week, which was not enough.

“What is more worrying is the sheer number of symptomatic people,”he added. "Using a conservative case fatality rate of 1% and assuming the surge is due to an Omicron variant of COVID-19, North Korea can expect thousands of deaths from this outbreak.”

KCNA said health authorities were trying to organise testing and treatment systems and boost disinfection work, however, the rapid spread of the virus hints at a looming, major crisis in a country lacking medical resources and which has refused international help with vaccinations while keeping its borders shut.

North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment for COVID tests. But it declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX global sharing programme and China, possibly leaving the vast majority of people in a relatively young society at higher risk of infection.

It is the only other sovereign UN member, apart from Eritrea, not to have rolled out vaccines.

Tedros said neither country has responded to WHO’s offers of vaccines, medicines, tests and technical support.

“WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread in (North Korea),” Tedros said, also noting the country has worrying numbers of people with underlying conditions that make them more likely to get severe COVID-19.


Reuters article – North Korea reports first COVID-19 death as fever spreads ‘explosively’ (Open access)


NPR article – North Korea reports 15 more suspected COVID-19 deaths (Open access)


AP News article ¬– North Korea boasts recovery as WHO worries over missing data (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


South Korea’s lesson to the world on how to live with COVID


Vulnerable Taiwan hailed for its successful response to COVID-19


Public disclosure of COVID-19 more effective than lockdowns — NBER working paper


Respiratory infectious disease transmission 3x higher in enclosed spaces — Korea study



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