North Korea Requests Covid-19 Vaccines From Global Group

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North Korea Requests Covid-19 Vaccines From Global Group

North Korea has emphasized its ‘anti-epidemic’ efforts in state media, including publishing photos of workers sanitizing facilities.

Photo: str/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

SEOUL—North Korea has submitted an application to receive Covid-19 virus vaccines from the main global alliance helping lower-income countries with inoculations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Gavi, the international vaccine alliance, declined to comment on North Korea’s application. But the group is assessing individual economies’ demands and expects to provide an update early in the year, a Gavi spokesman said.

In recent weeks, North Korea has reached out to several European embassies, inquiring how the country might obtain Covid-19 vaccines, according to people familiar with the matter.

Gavi said last month that it had received detailed vaccine requests from 86 of 92 lower-income countries and economies eligible for the Covax Advance Market Commitment program, which is aiming for equitable distribution of vaccines. For that group, which includes North Korea, Covax has secured at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses, targeting coverage of up to 20% of the population by the end of 2021.

North Korea hasn’t reported a single Covid-19 case. The Kim Jong Un regime has called combating the virus a matter of national survival. It has sealed off its borders and suspended foreign travel. Last week, state media warned of the new variant of the coronavirus, urging citizens to be on “maximum alert.”

Nearly 12,000 people have been tested for Covid-19 in North Korea through Dec. 17, with tens of thousands having been quarantined, according to the World Health Organization. Health experts and foreign officials are skeptical that North Korea is virus-free.

The Kim regime’s roughly 26 million people are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, given the country’s poverty and weak health-care infrastructure. Sanctions adopted after the North’s most recent nuclear tests block imports of metal objects and computers, creating barriers for certain medical tools and equipment. Pyongyang’s access to foreign banks is also restricted.

In February, the U.S. said it was ready to “expeditiously facilitate” requests from aid groups to help North Korea with Covid-19. Several organizations had requested the ability to transfer funds to an in-country office and to provide face masks, test kits and other equipment. Pyongyang hasn’t confirmed whether it has received any outside assistance.

As wealthier countries buy up supplies of Western drugmakers’ Covid-19 vaccines that are still in development, China and Russia are offering their fast-tracked shots to poorer nations. Here’s what they’re hoping to get in return. Illustration: Ksenia Shaikhutdinova (Originally Published October 14, 2020)

The North’s purported absence of Covid-19 cases is a point of national pride—and has been a sensitive issue for Pyongyang. In December, Kim Yo Jong, sister of the regime’s leader, criticized South Korea’s foreign minister for saying it was “hard to believe” North Korea’s claim of no infections.

In state media, North Korea has emphasized its “anti-epidemic” efforts, which require all citizens to wear face masks, and state media often publishes photos of geared-up workers sanitizing facilities. A new law that bans smoking in public places cited the “high risk of contracting the malignant virus.”

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Write to Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com

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