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North Korea steps up curbs after first possible coronavirus infection

SEOUL/GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korea introduced tougher curbs against the coronavirus on Tuesday, state media reported, after it locked down the town Kaesong, on the border with the South, to tackle what could be its first publicly confirmed infection.

People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

Strict quarantine measures and the screening of districts were in progress and test kits, protective clothing and medical equipment were being supplied, the North’s KCNA state news agency said.

The measures come after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency on Sunday after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned across the highly fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) to Kaesong this month with symptoms of COVID-19, KCNA reported.

Reclusive North Korea had reported testing 1,211 people for the virus as of July 16 with all returning negative results, the World Health Organization said in a statement sent to Reuters. The report said 696 nationals were under quarantine.

All those under quarantine were working at the Nampo seaport and Sinuiju-Dandong land border with China, Dr Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea, told Reuters by email, noting that the country has been quarantining labourers coming into contact with goods arriving into the country.

“WHO continues to advocate to the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) to increase surveillance in the provinces bordering China, in view of the recent increase in cases in China,” he added.

The WHO regularly shares guidelines with MOPH, which has developed a national protocol under which all suspected cases are to be quarantined in hospitals.

Temperature checks using infrared thermometers, hand washing facilities and sanitizers were in place in public places including shopping malls, restaurants and hotels, Salvador said.

Primers and probes for machines capable of facilitating 1,000 tests had also arrived in North Korea, WHO said. There are 15 laboratories designated to test COVID-19 in the country.

Impoverished North Korea has a limited healthcare system with hospitals that lack adequate electricity, medicine, and water. It has long depended on the WHO to procure drugs as sanctions against the country made imports difficult.

In the past months, it received test kits and protective gear from the WHO and countries including Russia, but some of these were held up at the border because of the country’s own restrictions.

North Korea said this month it has started early clinical trial on a vaccine for the virus, but experts are sceptical.

North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Reporting by Sangmi Chan in Seoul and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Nick Macfie