North Korea has reported no new “fever” cases for the first time since mid-May when it abruptly announced its first domestic outbreak of COVID-19, and imposed tough measures to curb the spread of the virus.
The North’s state emergency anti-epidemic centre said it had found zero fever patients in the most recent 24-hour period, state media reported on Saturday.
It said the total caseload was about 4.8 million and that about 99.99 percent of patients had fully recovered. Some 74 people have died from the virus, according to official figures, which would make the North’s mortality rate – at 0.0016 percent – the lowest in the world.
Shin Young-jeon, a professor at Hanyang University’s medical school in Seoul, said such a low number of deaths was nearly “impossible” to achieve.
“It could result from a combination of a lack of testing capacity, counting issues given the fact that old people have higher chances of dying from COVID-19 mostly from home, and political reasons that the leadership do not want to publicise a massive death toll,” he wrote in an analysis released on Friday.
Infectious disease experts have cast doubt on official updates on North Korea’s outbreak since the beginning, with the World Health Organization (WHO) saying last month it believed the situation was getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data.
Many were also concerned that an outbreak in the isolated country of 26 million would have devastating consequences because few people were vaccinated, many were undernourished and the health system was in a dilapidated state.
“The organisational power and unity unique to the society of (North Korea) is fully displayed in the struggle to bring forward a victory in the emergency anti-epidemic campaign by fully executing the anti-epidemic policies of the party and the state,” the official Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang said it was on a path to “finally defuse” the outbreak even as its neighbours experienced a resurgence in cases driven by Omicron subvariants.
The daily number of cases has dropped sharply in recent days with three reported cases on Friday and 11 on Thursday compared with a peak of about 400,000 a day in May. The country has identified only a fraction of patients as confirmed COVID-19 cases because of a lack of test kits.
In an indication of an easing outbreak, North Korea last week held enormous public events in the capital, Pyongyang, where thousands of aged Korean War veterans and others gathered from across the country to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the end of the Korean war. Photos shared on state media showed few people were wearing masks.
Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul’s Hanyang University, says North Korea knows that zero cases do not mean there is no COVID-19 because of the prevalence of asymptomatic cases, so will probably not announce it has officially overcome the pandemic anytime soon.
“North Korea’s state media has already used expressions like it’s winning its anti-virus fight. The only other expression they can use now is declaring the coronavirus has been completely eliminated from its territory,” Shin said. “But if new cases emerge again, North Korea would lose its face.”
Given the country’s long, porous border with China, North Korea’s main ally, it will probably also find it difficult to announce victory over the pandemic until China does so, said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea.
The North Korea-China border has been largely shut for more than two and a half years, except for a few months when it reopened earlier this year, and it remains unclear whether it will reopen.
China is currently battling a number of COVID-19 outbreaks in various cities across the country, but remains committed to its zero-COVID strategy of stamping out the virus wherever it appears.
“Since the state media has also been talking about variants, whether or when they will ease the virus rules and lift border lockdown remains to be seen,” said an official at South Korea’s unification ministry, which handles cross-border relations.
KCNA said a rapid mobile treatment force remained on high alert and efforts were working to “detect and stamp out the epidemic” until the last patient was fully recovered.