North Korea’s recently revealed COVID-19 outbreak may have already infected hundreds of thousands of people over the past month, according to the country’s state media.
An article, published Friday by the country’s international broadcasting service the Voice of Korea, revealed that an “obscure febrile disease has been explosively spread and expanded on a nationwide scale since late April, producing more than 350,000 persons in a fever in a short time.”
The report did not explicitly state that the widespread infections were from COVID, but experts say it was a tacit admission that the virus has spread across the isolated country of 25.8 million people, which until this week had denied it had any confirmed case of the disease and rejected vaccine offers.
“It’s not likely to be other viruses; in the current situation hundreds of thousands of people have symptoms,” Jacob Lee, professor of infectious diseases at South Korea’s Hallym University Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital, told VICE World News. “There is no other respiratory virus that can be prevalent right now other than COVID-19.”
Of those infected, 162,200 have reportedly recovered—but more than 18,000 “persons in a fever” were newly registered on Thursday, suggesting that the virus is rapidly spreading. On the same day, the country’s ruler Kim Jong Un first announced a COVID outbreak and ordered the country into lockdown, although he did not say how many people were infected.
The Friday report further revealed that over 187,800 have been in quarantine and that six individuals with fever symptoms have died, one of whom tested positive for the BA.2 Omicron variant of COVID.
“Kim Jong Un seriously pointed out that the febrile disease has simultaneously occurred in many places with the capital circle as the centre and it shows that there is an imperfection in the anti-epidemic system we have already established,” the report added.
If the 350,000 cases of fever were caused by COVID, it would mean that many more North Koreans—potentially millions—have been exposed to the virus, with the cases undetected because of a lack of testing or symptoms.
“You can think of what happened in Wuhan when it first broke out, when no one had been infected before. But what’s spreading in North Korea now is five to six times more transmissible than the one in Wuhan.”
Shanghai, which has a similar population to North Korea and tested the bulk of its 26 million residents, has reported some 56,000 symptomatic cases since March and 10 times more cases without symptoms.
Experts fear the ramifications of such an outbreak could be catastrophic as the country is not known to have administered any COVID vaccines to its population.
“You can think of what happened in Wuhan when it first broke out, when no one had been infected before. But what’s spreading in North Korea now is five to six times more transmissible than the one in Wuhan,” said Lee. “The infection rate will be rising fast. No North Korean is immunised and well-nourished, so it’ll probably result in mass death.”
“There’s a high probability it could be a huge catastrophe.”
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Lina Yoon called the situation “extremely concerning,” as poor health infrastructure and widespread malnourishment in the country look set to exacerbate the effects of the outbreak.
“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable to deal with this pandemic,” she said. “The international community should offer medicine for COVID-19-related symptoms, COVID-19-treating antiviral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for vaccine preservation.”
North Korean authorities on Thursday elevated the country’s national quarantine measures to “maximum emergency” after detecting the BA.2 Omicron variant. Prior to that, the government had staunchly denied the presence of any confirmed COVID cases within the country—claims that have been widely doubted by international experts.
Dr Sojin Lim, senior lecturer in North Korean Studies at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire, said it’s possible that North Korea had no COVID-19 cases until the recent outbreak. She cited Taiwan, which until the spread of Omicron had reported minimal numbers.
“But at the same time, we don’t know what’s really the case, because the COVID test was not [rolled out] for the whole population; the COVID test was taken only among the Pyongyang people.”
North Korea’s COVID monitoring and response systems have been so materially deficient that it’s impossible to know how many people may have been infected with the virus to date. In any case, Pyongyang’s two-year silence and self-assurance around COVID cases has come to an abrupt end. The Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party’s highest decision-making body, described the outbreak as a “grave situation.” Now, according to the Voice of Korea report on Friday, Kim described it as a “public health crisis.”
“He said it is the most important challenge and supreme task for our Party to reverse the present public health crisis at an early date, recover the stability of the anti-epidemic work and safeguard the health and well-being of the people,” the article read.
North Korea is currently one of only two countries in the world, alongside Eritrea, that has not rolled out COVID vaccines, after Kim refused multiple offers from the global COVAX program and other countries. Combined with a medical system that is already on its knees, as well as a hamstrung economy and languishing food and fuel stocks, the shockwaves of a COVID outbreak and lockdowns could be devastating for people around the country.
Pyongyang likely knows this, and some experts believe that the North Korean government, in finally making a rare public admission of an outbreak within its own borders, may be seeking outside aid.
“The fact that they disclosed it themselves shows the severity of it; they wouldn’t have if it weren’t so serious,” said Lee. “It’s like they’re sending out an SOS to the world. The situation must be more serious than [has been] disclosed already.”