North Korea: COVAX cuts reclusive country’s vaccine allocations

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SEOUL — As mask mandates and social distancing requirements increase around the world, North Korea remains one of two countries to have administered no coronavirus vaccine, with no sign of how it will be able to never begin to reopen despite a humanitarian crisis brewing for its people.

Vaccines that were allocated to North Korea as part of a United Nations-backed global vaccination effort are no longer available, officials said this month, after Pyongyang repeatedly rejected offers of the Million Doses initiative.

North Korea, already one of the most closed societies in the world, remains in strict pandemic lockdown and has closed its borders except to a minimal level of trade with China, with serious implications for health and food security. of its population.

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The pandemic shutdown has exacerbated the food crisis, said Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. In a recent report, Quintana said the country’s “covid restrictions, including border closures, appear to have prevented an outbreak inside the country, although likely at considerable cost to the wider health situation and further aggravating economic deprivation”.

However, no one is clear on the exact situation inside the country, as North Korea’s withdrawal amid the pandemic has restricted the remaining channels of information – diplomats, aid groups and tourists. can no longer enter.

In light of the looming crisis, Quintana urged the international community to find a way to get the 60 million doses needed into the country to immunize its population of 25 million.

Last year, North Korea rejected nearly 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine, saying shipments should be directed to other countries in greater need. North Korea also rejected 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine over apparent concern over potential side effects.

North Korean officials have privately indicated they would prefer mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer or Moderna, according to a report by an expert panel convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The panel concluded that North Korea would likely be interested in a high-volume supply of an mRNA vaccine.

Without any vaccine, North Korea risks becoming the epicenter of new variants due to low population immunity to the virus, the panel found.

“It is inevitable that they will have to reopen the border, and when they do, the best way to protect their population – which they are already interested in – is to vaccinate the population as much as possible, which they are able to do” said Kee Park, a global health expert at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health care projects in North Korea.

“They have to take a different strategy at this point. The zero covid strategy is starting to fall apart,” Park said.

Officials at North Korea’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment on the country’s intention to accept vaccines or what it hopes to see before moving forward with it. a vaccination program.

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North Korea and Eritrea are now the only two countries in the world that have not administered vaccines.

The Gavi Alliance, which is part of the Covax initiative which aims to provide vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people, said this month that it had no more vaccine doses allocated to North Korea. , but that they might be available again if the country changes its mind and starts a vaccination program and meets the technical requirements.

North Korea had met some of the requirements to accept shipments from Covax, but negotiations were ongoing about whether North Korea was willing to compensate the vaccine maker for unexpected side effects.

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Two years after North Korea declared a ‘national emergency response’ to the coronavirus, the lockdown shows no signs of easing, with state media this week urging the public to ‘strengthen anti-epidemic work in view of the protracted emergency”. An article published in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned of “negligence and idleness” in anti-epidemic work.

Yet at the party’s year-end plenum in December, North Korea announced it would shift from “control-based anti-epidemic work” to an “advanced and people-oriented” measure that seeks to “strengthen the anti-epidemic stronghold while overcoming circumstances that ignore convenience for our people,” according to state media.

“Such a change in the basis of their anti-virus approach is an admission that there are limits to fundamentally solving the problem with control and restriction alone, and that long-term restrictions have caused fatigue and dissatisfaction among people,” Kim Ho.-hong, a researcher at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy, said in a report.

With North Korea’s covid lockdown, borders closed and food supply in question

Ahn Kyung-su of the Seoul-based research center said Pyongyang’s “people-centric” slogan was likely an effort to ease pandemic fatigue, and he noted that restrictions remain in place in part to cause of the resurgence of the virus in China, which is closely followed in state media.

“North Korea showed signs of reopening earlier this year in January, when trains briefly crossed the Chinese border, but the virus spike in mainland China has pushed North Korea back into strict isolation,” it said. he declared.

Antiviral drugs could be a potential avenue for reopening North Korea without having to accept outside scrutiny of its technical capabilities, the CSIS panel suggested. While the mRNA vaccine requires sophisticated cold chain and other logistical means, antiviral pills can be distributed more easily.

In light of what could be an ongoing humanitarian crisis, the international community must find a way to persuade Pyongyang to reopen, UN special rapporteur Quintana said.

“A new way of thinking must prevail. It will require vision and initiative, driven by the needs of the North Korean people rather than any other agenda,” he said in his report.

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