WHO Trying to Confirm First North Korea COVID-19 Case, Develop Vaccine Plan

The World Health Organization has told Newsweek that the agency is working to verify North Korea's first recorded COVID-19 case, as it continues to help the country secure access to vaccines after state-run media appeared to confirm the pandemic had finally arrived in the secluded East Asian nation.

Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea, known officially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), told Newsweek that "WHO is yet to receive an official report from the Ministry of Health, DPR Korea, about confirmed COVID-19 case being reported in the media."

In the meantime, his team is working with North Korean officials tasked with overseeing coordination on international health regulations and other health personnel.

"WHO is in touch with the national IHR focal person and other Ministry of Health officials," Salvador said.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday (early Thursday local time) that the ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee Political Bureau had announced the launch of a "maximum emergency epidemic prevention system" as a result of "the grave situation such as the inroads of stealth Omicron variant into the country amid the ever-worsening worldwide public health crisis."

The initial positive detection was said to have occurred on May 8 after samples were analyzed of people with a fever, though no details have been provided as to the potential scope of the outbreak.

If confirmed, the case would mark an end to North Korea's two-year run as one of only three nations in the world, alongside Turkmenistan and Tuvalu, to have never reported a single instance of COVID-19, a record on which a number of foreign experts and officials had already cast doubt.

Of particular concern to outside observers has been a lack of clarity on the access to vaccines of North Koreans.

Salvador said WHO was coordinating directly with North Korean officials to support the country's fight against COVID-19 alongside partner agencies such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), which co-lead the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative.

"WHO has supported the country develop its national strategic preparedness and response plan for COVID-19," Salvador said. "Along with partners such as UNICEF and GAVI, WHO supported DPR Korea develop a COVID-19 vaccine deployment plan. The plan was reviewed and approved by a multi-partner body at the regional level, making DPR Korea eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX."

"WHO continues to and is committed to work with the national authorities of DPR Korea by providing them with necessary information on COVID-19 vaccines available through COVAX," he added.

More than 8 million vaccines were earmarked for North Korea through the program at one time, but the the number was reduced and, as of last month, cut altogether as no viable distribution plan emerged.

North, Korea, workers, spray, against, COVID-19
Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventative measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children's Department Store in Pyongyang on March 18. North Korea, which until recently had touted a zero COVID-19 record, instituted some of the world's first and strictest national lockdown policies, cutting off much of its ties with the outside world. KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

On the same day that North Korean media reported on the infection, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was seen attending the Central Committee's 8th Political Bureau meeting. He was joined by top political figures, representatives of the defense sector and observers of "the state emergency epidemic prevention sector," who appear to be receiving the brunt of the blame for the entry of the COVID-19 virus into the nation.

Politburo officials "censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency as they did not sensitively cope with the public health state which infectors of all kinds of variants are increasing worldwide including surrounding regions of our country," the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Measures were discussed as to how best mitigate the outbreak in line with the new "maximum emergency epidemic prevention system," which Kim said is "aimed to stably contain and control the spread of COVID-19 that made inroads into the country and to quickly cure the infections in order to eradicate the source of the virus spread at an early date."

He was cited as saying that the "more dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will," while proclaiming his faith in the nation's ability to defeat the virus.

Demonstrating support for Kim's resolve, was his nation's ally, China.

"China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Thursday. "The two sides enjoy the fine tradition of mutual assistance. Since the onset of COVID-19, the DPRK side has been firmly supporting China in the fight against the coronavirus. China very much appreciates that. We feel deeply for anti-COVID situation in the DPRK."

"As the DPRK's comrade, neighbor and friend," he added, "China is ready to go all-out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus."

After having largely reined in the pandemic in its early stages, China has found itself battling a wave of Omicron variant cases as of late, prompting strict lockdowns, including in the megacity of Shanghai.

North Korea's other neighbor to the north, Russia, also offered its assistance through its Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor).

"We have not received any official requests from North Korea yet but if requested, Rospotrebnadzor is ready to provide assistance to North Korea," the sanitary watchdog said in a statement Thursday.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.