WHO says 'no indications' of coronavirus cases in North Korea

People in protective suits spray disinfectant at an undisclosed location in North Korea on Feb 15, 2020. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS

GENEVA/SEOUL (REUTERS) - There are no indications that there are cases of the new coronavirus in North Korea, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official said, despite South Korean media reports suggesting the outbreak had spread to the isolated country.

"At the moment there are no signals, there are no indications we are dealing with any Covid-19 there," Dr Mike Ryan, head of WHO's emergencies programme, told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday (Feb 18).

Covid-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

WHO officials had "no reason to believe that there are any specific issues" going on in North Korea, and would be providing authorities in the North with more laboratory supplies to conduct diagnostic tests, Dr Ryan said.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that North Korea had reported making checks on nearly 7,300 travellers entering the country over a six-week period to Feb 9.

Citing the North Korean health ministry, he said 141 travellers with fevers had been tested for the virus and all had tested negative.

North Korean and WHO officials were due to meet in Geneva later to discuss preparedness. Mr Jasarevic said the WHO will provide North Korea with supplies including laboratory reagents for tests and protective equipment such as goggles, gloves, masks and gowns for health workers.

Some South Korean media outlets have reported multiple cases and possible deaths from the virus in North Korea, but there has been no independent verification.

On Tuesday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling party, quoted a public health official reiterating the country had "no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far".

A former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016 said the ability of the WHO to evaluate the situation in North Korea was probably limited, as its staff and other foreigners would mostly be confined in the capital Pyongyang.

"Recent measures taken by the North Korea regime are abnormal," the former diplomat, Mr Thae Yong-ho, told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday.

An outbreak of the disease - which has killed more than 2,000 people in neighbouring China - could be devastating for the under-resourced health system in North Korea, experts said.

Last week the US State Department said it is "deeply concerned" about the possible impact of a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea and is prepared to facilitate efforts by US and international organisations contain the spread of the virus there.

Aid organisations have called for exemptions from sanctions that restrict most trade and business with North Korea.

Already one of the most closed-off countries in the world, North Korea has stopped flights and train services with its neighbours, established month-long mandatory quarantines, suspended international tourism, and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel.

The WHO has prioritised aid for North Korea, and a shipment of protective equipment and supplies was due to be shipped there this week, Dr Ryan said.

"The government is very anxious as you can imagine, as all governments are, to make preparations and are seeking our technical and operational assistance to help them get ready," he said.

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