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North Korea claims to be virus-free: report

In this photo released by Rodong Shinmun on Thursday, medical staffs are wearing mask at a hospital in Pyongyang. (Yonhap)
In this photo released by Rodong Shinmun on Thursday, medical staffs are wearing mask at a hospital in Pyongyang. (Yonhap)

North Korea continues to insist it has no confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, despite mounting skepticism while the global pandemic is spreading.

The reclusive nation has tested 709 people -- 11 foreigners and 698 North Koreans -- for COVID-19, with no positive test results, according to Reuters on Tuesday, citing the North’s weekly updates submitted to the World Health Organization.

It said the country has the capacity to test for the virus at its national reference laboratory in Pyongyang, with the necessary reagents coming from China. The WHO has sent supplies of protective equipment.

As of now, there are 509 people in quarantine in North Korea, two foreigners and 507 nationals. Since Dec. 31, 24,842 people have been released from quarantine, including 380 foreigners, according to the report.

The regime has taken some of the most draconian actions against the virus starting early on: It closed its borders in late January and halted business with neighboring China, its closest ally and the presumed origin of the novel pathogen.

Nearly all countries have reported coronavirus cases, with the global virus tallies exceeding 1.4 million infections and more than 82,000 deaths. Health experts have cast doubt on claims that North Korea is virus-free, and have suggested that the regime might be covering up an outbreak.

Observers have warned that if COVID-19 spreads to North Korea, its weak public health system may not be able to cope, as it lacks proper medical supplies, personnel and infrastructure to deal with an outbreak.

Human rights organizations and officials have urged the international community to roll back sanctions on North Korea to ensure that food and vital medical supplies can reach the population during the global pandemic, with international NGOs joining in to provide assistance.

Seoul recently approved a local nonprofit organization’s plan to provide around 100 million won ($82,069) worth of hand sanitizer to North Korea to support its COVID-19 containment efforts. This marked the first time that the South Korean government has authorized a civilian aid group to provide assistance to its Northern neighbor.

The WHO is to spend $900,000 to support North Korea’s preventive efforts on COVID-19.

US President Donald Trump has also offered assistance to North Korea in the fight against COVID-19, but the North hasn’t responded yet.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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