GENEVA/SEOUL – There are no indications that there are cases of the new coronavirus in North Korea, a World Health Organization official said, despite South Korean media reports suggesting the outbreak had spread to the isolated country.
“At the moment there are no signals, there are no indications we are dealing with any COVID-19 there,” Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
WHO officials had “no reason to believe that there are any specific issues” going on in North Korea and it would be providing the North with more laboratory supplies to conduct diagnostic tests, Ryan said.
Some South Korean media outlets have reported multiple cases and possible deaths from the virus in North Korea, but there has been no independent verification.
On Tuesday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, quoted a public health official reiterating “no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far.”
But a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016 said the ability of the WHO to evaluate the situation in North Korea was likely limited by North Korean restrictions.
“Recent measures taken by the North Korea regime are abnormal,” the former diplomat, Thae Yong-ho, told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday.
Foreign observers like those at the WHO office, were mostly confined to specific locations in the capital, Pyongyang, he said.
An outbreak of the disease — which has killed more than 2,000 people in neighboring China — could be devastating for the underresourced health system in North Korea, experts said.
Last week, the U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned about the possible impact of a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea and was prepared to facilitate efforts by U.S. and international organizations contain the spread of the virus there.
Aid organizations have called for exemptions from sanctions that restrict most trade and business with North Korea.
Already one of the world’s most closed-off countries, North Korea has stopped flights and train services with its neighbors, established monthlong mandatory quarantines, suspended international tourism and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel.
The WHO has prioritized aid for North Korea, and a shipment of supplies including protective equipment was due to be shipped this week, Ryan said.
WHO officials were scheduled to meet a North Korean delegation in Geneva to discuss prevention, he said.
“The government is very anxious as you can imagine, as all governments are, to make preparations and are seeking our technical and operational assistance to help them get ready,” Ryan said.
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