North Korea reports first Covid-19 outbreak: Govt repeatedly refused offers of vaccines

Employees of the Daesongsan Mineral Water Factory in Pyongyang disinfecting the facility in March last year. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - North Korea has repeatedly rebuffed global offers for millions of doses of vaccines, making it one of the last places in the world completely unprotected from the threat of the virus.

It turned down one offer of 2.97 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine last fall, saying the vaccines should be "relocated to severely affected countries", and declined another offer of two million doses of AstraZeneca, according to Unicef and a South Korean think-tank affiliated with the country's intelligence agency.

Russian officials have also said North Korea has not taken up repeated offers from Moscow to supply the country with its Sputnik vaccine.

The regime appeared reluctant to accept some of the doses out of distrust for the Chinese-made Sinovac and concern about side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, the South Korean think-tank.

North Korean officials have privately suggested that they would prefer mRNA vaccines, and may be open to international offers of Pfizer or Moderna jabs, according to a March report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington.

"North Korea's population, with no immunity from infection or vaccination, is exceedingly vulnerable to the virus," the authors wrote, adding that its negotiating style makes it difficult to know what proposals for help will be accepted.

"It often does not disclose what it wants - leaving others guessing and negotiating among themselves about what to put on the table."

Having imposed some of the most stringent border controls early in the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea had also declined other offers for shipments of medical supplies or personal protective equipment to help with its pandemic control, even leaving one shipment from the World Health Organisation (WHO) stranded across the border in China.

At some point last year, though, North Korea began allowing the stranded shipments to be transported into the country through the northern Chinese port of Dalian, according to WHO.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.