Not looking good —
South Korea offers vaccines and medical aid, but it is not clear if North Korea will accept them.
At least six people in North Korea have died and more than 350,000 have contracted an unusual fever since late April in an outbreak that “explosively spread nationwide,” North Korean state media said Friday.
On Thursday, 18,000 new cases were reported, 187,800 people were in quarantine, and 162,200 had reportedly recovered. The cases are being defined by “a fever whose cause couldn’t be identified,” according to The New York Times.
The numbers come just a day after the authoritarian country acknowledged for the first time during the pandemic that the coronavirus was spreading within its borders.
Officials reported Thursday that a group of people with fevers in Pyongyang, the capital, were tested Sunday and found to be infected with the BA.2 omicron subvariant. North Korea immediately declared a “maximum crisis” and implemented a nationwide lockdown. Although it is not clear how many people were tested for the virus and found positive, state reports indicate that at least one of those who died was also positive for BA.
Outside experts say that the numbers reported may only be a fraction of the cases and deaths, given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, fractured health care system, and secretive nature. The country’s roughly 26 million people are thought to be largely unvaccinated. North Korean officials rejected previous offers of vaccines from China, as well as the United Nations-backed COVAX program.
Risks and threats
But some experts believe that the abrupt admission of coronavirus cases may be a signal that the health situation is dire and the country is now willing to receive offers. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol stated that Seoul would provide medical aid including vaccines on Friday. A spokesperson for the president told The Wall Street Journal that North Korea hadn’t requested the aid and hasn’t yet issued a response to the offer, but South Korean officials will consult with the North about a possible delivery.
Even if North Korea accepts the aid, the distribution of vaccines may be difficult, the Journal noted. The country does not have the cold-chain infrastructure required to transport and store the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Problems are also complicated by widespread fuel shortages and restricted access to rural health clinics. The country is also ex