WHO says 'no indications' of coronavirus cases in North Korea

Stephanie Nebehay and Josh Smith, Reuters

Posted at Feb 19 2020 12:09 PM

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a horse as he visits battle sites in areas of Mt. Paektu, Ryanggang, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on Dec. 4, 2019. KCNA/Reuters/File

GENEVA/SEOUL - There are no indications that there are cases of the new coronavirus in North Korea, a World Health Organization (WHO) 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 would be providing authorities in 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 the country had "no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far."

An outbreak of the disease - which has killed more than 2,000 people in neighboring China - could be devastating for the under-resourced health system in North Korea, experts said.

Last week, the US 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 US and international organizations to 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 most closed-off countries in the world, North Korea has stopped flights and train services with its neighbors, established month-long 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 protective equipment and supplies was due to be shipped there this week, Ryan 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," he said.