1 of 3 | North Korean soldiers work to supply medicine to pharmacies amid the nation's COVID-19 outbreak at the Ministry of National Defense in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Monday.Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE
SEOUL, May 17 (UPI) -- North Korea is scrambling to contain an outbreak of fever cases connected to the country's first reported COVID-19 infections, with nearly 270,000 new cases and six deaths reported on Tuesday amid national lockdowns and military efforts to dispense medicines.
The country's total number of cases of the unspecified fever reached 1.5 million, with 56 deaths, according to North Korea's disease control headquarters.
"Urgent measures have been taken to immediately rectify the deviations in the supply of medicines," state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday, one day after leader Kim Jong Un criticized health officials for failing to respond quickly enough to the emergency.
"The military medical field of the People's Army urgently deployed its powerful forces to all pharmacies in Pyongyang City and began to supply medicines under the 24-hour service system," KCNA said.
The report added that media outreach has also started to inform the public about the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant and outline virus prevention rules.
North Korea officially reported its first coronavirus infections last Thursday and warned of an "explosive" outbreak as it rushed to contain the virus with emergency measures, including widespread lockdowns.
Pyongyang rejected offers of vaccine help from China, Russia and the United Nations-aligned COVAX global vaccine sharing program throughout the pandemic, and experts warn that the country is poorly equipped to handle a COVID-19 outbreak.
"With [North Korea] yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures," Dr. Khetrapal Singh, regional director of World Health Organization South-East Asia, said in a statement.
Singh said that the WHO is "concerned and ready to support the government and the people" of North Korea.
Pyongyang has been unusually candid in its media coverage of the outbreak, which may be intended to invite international aid, said Ahn Kyung-su of DPRKHealth.org, a Seoul-based network and website which monitors public health information from the North.
"I think North Korea wants to receive support for COVID pills such as Paxlovid, rather than vaccines from international organizations including the United States," Ahn told UPI. "This is because drugs are much simpler in terms of transportation, distribution and management than vaccines."
"Even if vaccines are imported from outside, it seems very late considering the transportation and distribution process, the time required for medical personnel training, and the time it takes for vaccines to be effective after inoculation," he added.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Monday that Seoul would "spare no effort" to help North Korea deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. The country's Unification Ministry also said that it reached out to Pyongyang through its liaison channels, but as of Tuesday evening it had not reported any response.
It appears instead that North Korea has turned primarily to its main ally and trading partner China for assistance. A report Tuesday by South Korean news agency Yonhap citing unnamed sources said that at least three flights by North Korean carrier Air Koryo traveled to the Chinese city of Shenyang to pick up COVID-19 medicines and supplies.