Pyongyang | Reuters: North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the "gravest national emergency" and ordering a national lockdown, with state media reporting an Omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang. The first public admission of COVID infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.

As of March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization, and there is no official record of any North Koreans having been vaccinated. "A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020," official KCNA news agency said.

Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who were experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2, the report said, without providing details on case numbers or possible sources of infection.

The report was published after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a Workers' Party meeting on Thursday to discuss responses to the outbreak Kim ordered all cities and counties of the country to "strictly lock down" their regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said emergency reserve medical supplies would be mobilised, according to KCNA.

Although the North has never before confirmed a single coronavirus infection in the country, officials in South Korea and the United States have doubted that the country is COVID-free, as cases of the Omicron variant were widely reported in neighbouring South Korea and China.

The isolated North has enforced strict quarantine measures, including border lockdowns, since the pandemic began in early 2020. In July that year, Kim declared an emergency and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, for three weeks after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.

According to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO), 64,207 of North Korea's more than 24.7 million people received COVID-19 testing; all had been found negative as of March 31. North Korea has declined shipments of vaccine from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing programme and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, suggesting no civilians may have been vaccinated.

NO VACCINE, NO MEDICAL INFRASTRUCTURE

Thursday's KCNA report said Kim told the Workers' Party meeting that the latest emergency quarantine system's purpose is to stably control and manage the spread of the coronavirus and quickly heal infected people to eliminate the source of transmission in the shortest period.

South Korea's central bank in an annual report in July 2021 said the North's economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020, weighed down by COVID border controls, U.N. sanctions and bad weather. Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the fact that Kim called a party politburo meeting at dawn and state media immediately published the deliberations shows the urgency of the situation.

Posted By: Talibuddin Khan