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WHO believes COVID getting worse, not better in North Korea

LONDON (AP) – A top official at the World Health Organization (WHO) said the United Nations (UN) health agency assumes the coronavirus outbreak in North Korea is “getting worse, not better”, despite the secretive country’s recent claims that COVID-19 is slowing there.

At a briefing on Wednesday, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr Mike Ryan appealed to North Korean authorities for more information about the COVID-19 outbreak there, saying “we have real issues in getting access to the raw data and to the actual situation on the ground”.

He said WHO has not received any privileged information about the epidemic. Typically, countries may share sensitive data with the organisation so it can evaluate the health risks for the global community.

“It is very, very difficult to provide a proper analysis to the world when we don’t have access to the necessary data,” he said.

WHO has previously voiced concerns about the impact of COVID-19 in North Korea’s population, which is believed to be largely unvaccinated and whose fragile health systems could struggle to deal with a surge of cases prompted by the super-infectious Omicron and its sub-variants.

An employee of Pyongyang Dental Hygiene Products Factory disinfects the floor of a dining room. PHOTO: AP

Ryan said WHO had offered technical assistance and supplies to North Korean officials multiple times, including offering COVID-19 vaccines on at least three separate occasions.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials discussed revising stringent anti-epidemic restrictions, state media reported, as they maintained the claim that the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak is slowing.

The discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting on Sunday suggested it would relax a set of curbs imposed after it announced the outbreak in May out of concern about its food and economic situations.

North Korea’s claims to have controlled COVID-19 without widespread vaccination, lockdowns or drugs have been met with widespread disbelief, particularly its insistence that only dozens have died among many millions infected.

The North Korean government has said there are about 3.7 million people with suspected COVID-19.

But it disclosed few details about the severity of illness or how many people have recovered, frustrating public health experts’ attempt to understand the outbreak.

“We really would appeal for for a more open approach so we can come to the assistance of the people of (North Korea), because right now we are not in a position to make an adequate risk assessment of the situation on the ground,” Ryan said.

He said WHO was working with neighbouring countries like China and South Korea to ascertain more about what might be happening in North Korea, saying that the epidemic there could potentially have global implications.

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