May 12, 2022 09:00 am
North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the "gravest national emergency" and ordering a national lockdown, with state media reporting an Omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang.
The first public admission of COVID infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.
As of March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization, and there is no official record of any North Koreans having been vaccinated.
"A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020," official KCNA news agency said.
Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who were experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2, the report said, without providing details on case numbers or possible sources of infection.
The report was published after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a Workers' Party meeting on Thursday to discuss responses to the outbreak
Kim ordered all cities and counties of the country to "strictly lock down" their regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said emergency reserve medical supplies would be mobilised, according to KCNA.
"The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system," KCNA said.
Although the North has never before confirmed a single coronavirus infection in the country, officials in South Korea and the United States have doubted that the country is COVID-free, as cases of the Omicron variant were widely reported in neighbouring South Korea and China.
The isolated North has enforced strict quarantine measures, including border lockdowns, since the pandemic began in early 2020. In July that year, Kim declared an emergency and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, for three weeks after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.