Coronavirus Global situation

At least one patient dead amid N. Korea's first confirmed outbreak

SEOUL • At least one person confirmed to have Covid-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever symptoms, the state media said yesterday, offering hints of the potentially dire scale of the country's first confirmed outbreak of the pandemic.

The data represents an unprecedented admission of an "explosive" outbreak in a country that had reported no previous confirmed cases since the pandemic began, and could mark a grave public health, economic and political crisis for the isolated regime.

South Korea's new president, Mr Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office this week, plans to provide Covid-19 vaccines and other medical support to North Koreans, and his government will discuss details with Pyongyang, his spokesman said yesterday.

Mr Yoon's pledge for support came a day after Mr Kwon Young-se, his nominee to be the unification minister responsible for inter-Korea ties, said at his confirmation hearing that he would push for humanitarian assistance for the North, including Covid-19 treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.

Experts said that given North Korea's limited testing capabilities, the numbers probably represent a small fraction of the infections.

About 187,800 people are being treated in isolation after a fever of unidentified origin has "explosively spread nationwide" since late April, said the official KCNA news agency. Roughly 350,000 people have shown signs of that fever, including 18,000 who reported such symptoms on Thursday, KCNA said.

About 162,200 have been treated, but it did not specify how many had tested positive for Covid-19. At least six people with fever symptoms have died, with one of those cases confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, KCNA said.

Dr Kee Park of Harvard Medical School said the country has been testing about 1,400 people each week, which is not nearly enough to survey 350,000 people with symptoms. "What is more worrisome is the sheer number of symptomatic people," he added. "Using a conservative case fatality rate of 1 per cent and assuming the surge is due to an Omicron variant of Covid-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command centre on Thursday to check the situation and the response after declaring a "gravest state of emergency" and ordering a national lockdown, KCNA said.

The state media has said the outbreak began in the capital Pyongyang in late April, without elaborating on potential causes.

The city hosted several massive public events on April 15 and 25, including a military parade and large gatherings where most people did not wear masks. Mr Kim, who attended some of those events, "criticised that the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system we have already established", KCNA said.

He said actively isolating and treating people with fever is a top priority, while calling for scientific treatment methods and tactics, and measures to supply medication.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said yesterday that Russia will promptly consider any request from North Korea for Covid-19 vaccine supplies. "North Korean comrades are well aware of our various inoculations, they are aware of our extensive experience with Covid-19," he said. "If there are appeals from Pyongyang, they will be dealt with promptly."

Separately, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said yesterday that China will help North Korea fight the Covid-19 outbreak if its East Asian neighbour makes the request.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2022, with the headline At least one patient dead amid N. Korea's first confirmed outbreak. Subscribe