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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un said the country’s first Covid-19 outbreak was a “great disaster” as it reported 21 more deaths.

State media said 174,440 people were found with fever symptoms on Friday alone as the country scrambles to slow the spread of Covid-19 in its unvaccinated population.

North Korea said on Saturday that 27 people have died and 524,440 have fallen ill amid a rapidly spreading fever since late April. He said 280,810 people remain in quarantine.

State media did not specify how many fever cases and deaths have been confirmed as Covid-19 cases.

At an anti-virus strategy meeting on Saturday, Kim described the outbreak as a historic “huge disruption” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

The country imposed nationwide lockdowns on Thursday after confirming its first Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.

State media said testing of virus samples taken on Sunday from an unknown number of people with fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant. The country has so far officially confirmed that one death was linked to Omicron infection.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of Covid could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor healthcare system and the fact that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.

North Korea has so far shunned offers of Covid vaccines from China and Russia, and through the World Health Organization’s Covax program, reportedly because administering the shots would require outside oversight.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the regime’s public acknowledgment of coronavirus cases meant “the public health situation must be serious”.

With Reuters and Associated Press

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