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Despite COVID-19 surge in region, North Korea says it's close to 'defusing' outbreak

North Korean state media claimed the country is on its way to "completely defusing" its COVID-19 outbreak, even as nearby countries are experiencing new surges. File Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE
North Korean state media claimed the country is on its way to "completely defusing" its COVID-19 outbreak, even as nearby countries are experiencing new surges. File Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, July 18 (UPI) -- North Korea is on its way to "completely defusing" its outbreak of COVID-19 on Monday, according to state media, even as cases surge in nearby countries.

Health officials reported 310 new cases of an unspecified fever on Monday, to bring the isolated country's total to over 4.7 million since its first official COVID-19 infections were announced in mid-May.

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Efforts are being intensified "for completely defusing the epidemic crisis and restoring the anti-epidemic stability," the Korean Central News Agency said.

Case counts have declined steadily since peaking at nearly 400,000 on May 15, days after officials reported an "explosive" outbreak of COVID-19 and declared a national emergency.

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Some 99.9% of patients with fever cases have recovered, according to officials. State media have not updated the disease's death toll since earlier this month, when it stood at just 74 -- a fatality rate far lower than anywhere else in the world and one that experts doubt, as North Korea's population is believed to be almost entirely unvaccinated.

Most of Pyongyang's assertions about the pandemic have drawn skepticism from outside observers, starting with its claim of having zero infections for more than two years until the May outbreak.

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The World Health Organization said last month that it believed the situation was getting worse in North Korea, not better, despite the falling case numbers.

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North Korea said Monday its health agencies have taken "foresighted measures to establish a system of scientific test and treatment for COVID-19 variants and other pandemic diseases," according to KCNA, including a "guide for collecting and delivering the sample of monkeypox virus."

Neighboring South Korea, meanwhile, is seeing a surge in new COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious BA.5 strain of the Omicron variant. Daily infections surpassed 40,000 last week, a two-month high, and health officials have projected that new cases could spike to over 200,000 per day next month.

On Monday, South Korea lowered the eligibility age for a second COVID-19 vaccine booster shot from 60 to 50 years old.

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Japan topped 100,000 cases on Sunday for the first time since February as it also faces a new wave. And China, which has been quick to impose citywide lockdowns and mass testing requirements as part of its "zero COVID" strategy, has seen a recent rise as well, with locally transmitted infections hitting a nearly two-month high of 580 on Saturday.

North Korea earlier this month blamed its COVID-19 outbreak on balloons and other items from South Korea being sent across the border.

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