Massive Covid-19 Outbreak in Unvaccinated North Korea Raises Fresh Pandemic Concerns  
DPR Korea and Eritrea are the only countries in the world that have not launched COVID vaccine campaigns.

Nearly 1.4 million people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPR Korea) are suspected of having been infected with COVID-19 in just the past three weeks, WHO officials said today. 

The global health agency has offered diagnostics, vaccines, medicines and other support, but with no clear response to date from the isolated Asian nation that so far has refused to vaccinate its population of 26 million.  

DPR Korea, otherwise known as North Korea has admitted only to a wave of ‘fever’– as the state media called it – the closest it has come to acknowledging a COVID outbreak since the SARS-CoV2 pandemic began in 2020.  It is one of only two countries worldwide to have not yet started a vaccination campaign – the other one being Eritrea. 

“WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread of COVID-19 in the country, particularly because the population is unvaccinated and many underlying conditions put them at risk of severe illnesses,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director General, at the press briefing today in Geneva. 

He added that WHO had asked government authorities to share more samples or data sequences of the SARS-CoV2 virus circulating – although some samples already shared suggest the outbreak is dominated by the Omicron BA.2 variant. 

Unvaccinated status raises concerns  

Officials with masks stand at attention in DPR Korea.

DPR Korea’s unvaccinated status has raised concerns regionally and globally that a large outbreak could also lead to the emergence of new variants – as well as imposing a heavy toll on the country itself.  

“With the country yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, said in a press statement on May 16.

The authoritarian state has meanwhile mobilized the army, mounted an information campaign and urged patients with ‘fever’ to opt for home remedies along with the use of painkillers and antibiotics, according to one Reuters report

In Eritrea, meanwhile, no major COVID wave has been reported just now, but the situation remains concerning there, as well, said Tedros. 

“They still haven’t accepted our offer that we made some time ago to get [them] vaccines. So we haven’t heard from them,” he said. “I have written to the president stating that we are ready to help and we have vaccines in stock that can go to Eritrea but we haven’t heard from him either.”

‘Omicron Is Deadly, Not Mild’ 

WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan

“..It would be a whole package which they (DPR Korea) will need now – not only vaccination that will be needed, but also the critical care and interventions for people who are already infected,” added WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan. “We stand ready to work with the governments of both Eritrea and DPRK to ensure that people have access to the tools that are now available all over the world.” 

Meanwhile, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead for the COVID-19 response rejected suggestions that the outbreak in DPR Korea would be “mild” due to the likelihood that it is dominated by the Omicron strain of SARS-CoV2.  

“This notion that Omicron is mild is false.” she asserted. “What we are seeing is that people who are vaccinated have a much reduced risk of developing severe disease and that is why vaccines are so critically important around the world, particularly among those who are vulnerable, those who are over the age of 60.” 

“We know consistently across countries that people with underlying conditions are at an increased risk of severe disease.”  Along with holdouts such as DPR Korea and Eritrea, that poses a continuing concern for some 65 other countries, mostly in the African region, which have not yet vaccinated 40% of their populations, Swaminathan also noted.

Streamlining process for amendments to International Health Regulations  

Steven Solomon, WHO chief legal counsel talks about pending resolution on International Health Regulations 

Meanwhile, a senior WHO legal official said that a draft resolution on the table at the upcoming World Health Assembly could speed up the process for amending International Health Regulations (IHR), which govern WHO and countries’ pandemic response. 

The WHA begins on Sunday, 22 May and runs until 28 May. 

However, a WHA outcome that merely amends the process for making IHR amendments – rather than actually tackling the weak points in the rules themselves –  will likely prove to be frustrating to some nations as well as observers that have argued for much faster and more dramatic changes.  

The United States, for its part, has tabled a proposal for a very detailed series of revisions to the current IHR rules. These amendments would set a strict timetable of just 48 hours for countries to report to WHO about new disease outbreaks after they are identified by a national focal point. 

That would be followed by another 48 hours period in which countries can either accept WHO offers of technical assistance – or else WHO would share on the outbreak details with all member states.  That’s in contrast to present-day practice where the global health agency sometimes waits for months to make an outbreak public. For instance, a wildpolio virus outbreak in Malawi that occurred in November 2021, was only reported publicly by WHO in February.

But with some member states, such as China and Russia, fearful of giving the IHR more teeth at all, an agreement to expedite the process for making amendments may be the best that can be achieved at this WHA session.  

With a current period of two years for any IHR amendment to take effect once something is agreed, the new rule would at least halve the delay and thus streamline the process somewhat, said Steven Solomon, WHO’s Principal Legal Officer. 

“It’s an area that the Director General  supports as helping to streamline and make more effective and more agile this important international legal instrument (IHR).” If agreed, this would be only the second time that the IHRs have been amended,” he pointed out. . 

Overall, the WHA will take up the pandemic as a major topic of discussion for the third year in a row, added Tedros, including “how to end the emergency, increasing access to vaccines, antivirals, and other life saving tools.”

Image Credits: KCN.

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