'Too late' for North Korea to halt current Omicron wave with vaccines: South Korean experts

However, vaccines would be critical in helping North Korea fight the second and third waves of the Omicron outbreak.

Sulaiman Daud | May 20, 2022, 11:05 AM

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A South Korean medical expert believes that the Covid-19 situation in North Korea could result in tens of thousands of deaths -- and even if a vaccination programme was started right away, it would not make much difference due to the rapid nature of the Omicron wave.

Korea Herald quoted Oh Myoung-don, an infectious disease expert at Seoul National University, who said at this point, vaccines would make "little difference" to the crisis facing North Korea.

This was not a comment on their effectiveness, but rather the speed by which the Omicron variant can spread within a population.

Oh said:

"Even if the vaccines were to arrive now, it would take at least a month for both doses to get to the arms of people and for the full protective effects to kick in. By that time, Omicron will have already have peaked and done its damage."

Oh, also identified as the head of the National Medical Center’s committee for clinical management of emerging infectious diseases, was speaking at a virtual forum organised by the university on May 16.

"Of course the vaccines are important, but unfortunately vaccines are not expected to play a big role in containing this outbreak," he added, according to the Washington Post.

North Korea may need to accept assistance

Oh recommended that North Korea avail itself of treatments like antivirals and anti-inflammatory medications to try and prevent severe illness, as well as simpler medicines for fever.

Paik Soon-young, a virologist at Catholic University of Korea, echoed Oh's sentiments, but said North Korea would still need vaccines to fend off possible second and third waves of infections.

This may be difficult, given North Korea's belligerent stance towards material assistance from the international community, and South Korea, in particular.

According to AP, North Korea rejected offers of vaccines, healthcare personnel and medical supplies from South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, as well as vaccine supplies from COVAX under the auspices of the World Health Organization.

But North Korea has reached out to China, who have in turn pledged to go "all-out" to help it fight the virus.

High death toll likely

The Omicron wave may lead to a severe death toll among the North Korean population.

Oh estimated that it could reach 34,000 at the end of the current wave, based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as data from Hong Kong's recent Omicron wave.

The CDC reported that the high overall mortality rate was due to deaths among unvaccinated people aged 60 and older.

As North Korea has about 2.4 million people in that age range, representing 9 per cent of their population and likely unvaccinated, they could be badly hit.

Oh also pointed out that Hong Kong has a more advanced healthcare system than North Korea, which could mean more deaths suffered in the latter.

Possible underreporting of cases and deaths

Korea Herald also cited Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson Son Young-rae, who pointed out that North Korea may be missing even more cases due to the way they diagnose Covid-19.

North Korea reports "fever" cases instead of Covid cases, probably due to a lack of test kits, but only about one in 10 people infected with Omicron develop a fever.

Over one in two younger people infected with Omicron don't display any symptoms at all, which means that North Korea could be missing out more cases.

Son credited South Korea's adherence to mass testing and a high vaccine rate as reasons for its low case fatality rate of 0.13, and said the Omicron wave would have been deadlier without them.

Meanwhile, Lee Sang-won, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s epidemiological analysis team, observed that North Korea's report of just 56 deaths out of 1.48 million cases would mean it has the lowest rate of deaths per cases in the entire world, despite the current outbreak.

This suggests a possible underreporting of deaths.

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Top image from Pyongyang Broadcasting Service YouTube.