LONDON — A senior World Health Organization official has said the UN health agency expects the coronavirus outbreak in North Korea to be “worse, not better”, despite recent claims from the secretive country that it is slowing.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies, contacted the North Korean authorities for more information on the virus outbreak there, saying: “We are having real problems getting access to the raw data and the actual situation on the ground.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
He said WHO has not received privileged information about the epidemic – unlike typical outbreaks, where countries may share more sensitive data with the organization so it can assess the public health risks to the global community.
“It’s very, very difficult to provide proper analysis to the world if we don’t have access to the data we need,” he said.
The WHO has previously raised concerns about the impact of the virus on North Korea’s population, which is believed to be largely unvaccinated and whose fragile health systems may struggle to cope with a surge in cases caused by the highly infectious Omicron and its Subvariants are caused.
Ryan said the WHO has offered technical assistance and supplies to North Korean officials on a number of occasions, including offering Covid-19 vaccines on at least three separate occasions.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials discussed revising strict anti-epidemic restrictions, state media reported, as they maintained a widely disputed claim that the country’s first virus outbreak is slowing.
Discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting on Sunday suggested it would soon ease a series of draconian restrictions imposed after its admission of the Omicron outbreak last month over concerns about its food and economic situation.
North Korea’s claims of bringing the outbreak under control without widespread vaccination, lockdowns or drugs have been met with widespread disbelief, particularly an insistence that only tens of many millions of those infected have died – a far lower death rate than anywhere else in the world World.
The North Korean government said there were about 3.7 million people with a fever or suspected of having Covid-19. But it revealed few details about the severity of the disease or how many people have recovered, frustrating public health experts’ attempts to understand the scale of the outbreak.
“We would really call for a more open approach so that we can come to the rescue of the people of (North Korea) given our current inability to do a proper risk assessment of the situation on the ground,” Ryan said.
He said the WHO is working with neighboring countries like China and South Korea to learn more about what could be happening in North Korea, saying the epidemic there could potentially have a global impact.
The WHO’s criticism of North Korea’s failure to provide more information about its virus outbreak contrasts with the UN health agency’s failure to publicly blame China in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
In early 2020, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus repeatedly publicly praised China for its swift response to the emergence of the coronavirus, even as WHO scientists privately grumbled about China’s delayed information sharing and stalled sharing of the genetic sequence for Covid-19.