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North Korea hails recovery; WHO worries over data

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – North Korea said yesterday more than a million people have already recovered from suspected COVID-19 just a week after disclosing an outbreak it appears to be trying to manage in isolation as global experts express deep concern about the public health threat.

The country’s anti-virus headquarters announced 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths in state media yesterday. Those figures raise its totals to 62 deaths and more than 1.7 million fever cases since late April. It said at least 691,170 remain in quarantine.

Outside experts believe most of the fevers are COVID-19 but North Korea lacks tests to confirm so many. The outbreak is almost certainly larger than the fever tally, since some virus carriers may not develop fevers or other symptoms.

It’s also unclear how more than a million people recovered so quickly when limited medicine, medical equipment and health facilities exist to treat the country’s impoverished, unvaccinated population of 26 million.

Some experts said the North could be simply releasing people from quarantine after their fevers subside. Globally, COVID-19 has killed about 6.3 million people with the true toll believed to be much higher.

Countries with outbreaks of a similar size to North Korea’s official fever tally have confirmed thousands of deaths each.

A worker in protective gear stands along an empty sidewalk in Pyongyang, North Korea. PHOTO: KCNA

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

Before acknowledging COVID-19 infections for the first time last week, North Korea had held to a widely doubted claim of keeping out the virus. It also shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the United Nations (UN)-backed COVAX distribution programme, likely because of international monitoring requirements attached to them.

North Korea and Eritrea are the only sovereign UN-member countries not to have rolled out vaccines, but 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.

WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said unchecked transmission of the virus could lead to new variants but that WHO was powerless to act unless countries accepted its help.

The North has so far ignored South Korea’s offer to provide vaccines, medicine and health personnel, but experts said the North may be more willing to accept help from its main ally China.