By Stephanie Nebehay and Josh Smith
GENEVA/SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has imposed a strict quarantine around foreigners or returning nationals who display fever on entering the country, but has found no cases of coronavirus yet, its envoy to the United Nations in Geneva said on Wednesday.
Earlier, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had no indications that the new coronavirus had spread to North Korea, after South Korean media suggested there were cases and deaths there that were being covered up by the Pyongyang authorities.
Han Tae Song, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ambassador to U.N. organizations in Geneva, said its officials had extended the quarantine period to some 30 days – double the 14-day incubation period for the virus.
“(There has been) no case of the outbreak of coronavirus,” Han told Reuters. “We have a strict quarantine in certain areas for certain times.” Asked about suspect cases, he said: “The main suspects could be travelers who visited other countries – North Korean as well as foreigners.
“I was informed that we extended the quarantine, actually it was 14 days, but according to scientific results, coronavirus could break out even 3 weeks later. That is why we extended to 30 days quarantine…Prevention is less cost than cure.”
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said North Korea had reported checking nearly 7,300 travelers entering the reclusive country over a six-week period to Feb. 9. Citing the health ministry, he said 141 travelers with fevers had been tested for the virus but all had negative results.
An outbreak of the disease which has killed more than 2,000 people in neighboring China could be devastating for the under-resourced health system in North Korea. Aid agencies have called for exceptions to be made to international trading sanctions to make it easier if needed to help Pyongyang fight the disease.
“At the moment there are no signals, there are no indications we are dealing with any COVID-19 there,” Dr Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
North Korean and WHO officials were due to meet in Geneva later on Wednesday to discuss preparedness. Jasarevic said the WHO will provide North Korea with supplies including laboratory reagents for tests and protective equipment such as goggles, gloves, masks and gowns for health workers.
Already among the world’s most closed-off states, North Korea has stopped flights and train services with neighbors, set up month-long mandatory quarantines, suspended international tourism and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Mark Heinrich)