North Korea orders strict lockdown with first official Covid cases
By Frances Mao
North Korea has ordered a strict national lockdown after confirming its first official Covid infections.
State media have reported an Omicron outbreak in the capital, Pyongyang, but did not state the number of cases.
KCNA said leader Kim Jong-un had vowed to eradicate the outbreak, which it called a “severe national emergency” that had breached the country’s “quarantine front”.
But observers believe the virus has long been present in the country.
Outsiders say the nation’s 25 million population is vulnerable as North Korea has declined to administer a Covid-19 vaccine programme, even rejecting offers from the international community to supply millions of AstraZeneca and Chinese-made Sinovac jabs last year.
There have also been concerns about North Korea’s impoverished healthcare system.
North Korea’s main way of combating Covid has been to seal its foreign borders – it was one of the first countries to do so, in January 2020.
But this has also stopped essential supplies from entering the country, which has led to food shortages and a cratering economy.
On Thursday, KCNA said Mr Kim had ordered “maximum emergency” virus controls, which appeared to include orders for localised lockdowns and gathering restrictions in workplaces.
The North Korean news outlet added that the first case of the Omicron variant had been reportedly detected in the capital four days ago.
Residents in some areas of Pyongyang had been subjected to lockdown for at least two days before the latest announcement, according to NK News, a Seoul-based monitoring site.
South Korea’s government said it has renewed its offer of humanitarian assistance to the North in response to the news of the outbreak. Pyongyang has yet to respond.
For more than two years, North Korea has, rather dubiously, claimed not to have a single case of Covid-19. So why admit to it now?
Most likely it is because this outbreak is too serious and too difficult to hide.
North Korea has been consistent in its public commitment to fighting the virus. This is how it has justified closing its borders for so long. Now that Omicron has entered the country, the challenge is to limit its spread.
With no vaccines, poor healthcare and a limited capacity to test people, North Korea’s options are very limited right now.
Authorities have clearly decided they have no choice but to put the country into lockdown. In order to do this, they simply have to tell people and the rest of the world.
It does not necessarily mean they will be any more willing to accept outside help.
Analysts say Pyongyang’s disclosure of the Covid cases at this time is significant and could hamper the state’s nuclear ambitions which have been on show this year.
North Korea has claimed to have conducted more than a dozen banned missile tests, including one of an intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon it hadn’t tested in over four years.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP that North Korea might shelve plans for a nuclear test to focus on battling the outbreak, though if public fears escalated, Mr Kim may go ahead with a test “to divert this fear to another place”.
But Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University, said that North Koreans “may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military”.
He added that he believed Pyongyang would “likely double down” on its lockdowns, given that it was entering a “period of uncertainty in managing its domestic challenges and international isolation”.
Despite North Korea’s previous claims that it had “shining success” in keeping out Covid, there have been signs throughout the pandemic of the virus’ potential presence in the country.
In June last year, state media reported that Mr Kim had punished officials over a “grave incident” related to Covid, but did not specify details.
Then in September, the state held a military parade featuring lines of soldiers wearing hazmat suits and masks, which some analysts saw as a sign that a special force was created to help prevent the spread of Covid.
North Korea shares land borders with South Korea and China, which have battled outbreaks. China is now struggling to contain an Omicron wave with lockdowns in its biggest cities.
FAUCI: MORE CLARITY ON BOOSTERS LATER THIS YEAR
Chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Wednesday he thinks it will be known later this year if and how often COVID-19 vaccination boosters should be administered.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the proposed budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) asked Fauci what he thought the future of coronavirus vaccination looked like.
“Well it’s very clear right now if you look at the need for vaccination — I mean if you look at the hospitalizations and deaths of those who are unvaccinated compared to those who are vaccinated and boosted, the data are stunning. They’re striking, the difference,” Fauci said.
He added that it was “very clear” that a booster is necessary in the “era of omicron,” pointing to the strength of the protection that a third shot offered. However, he acknowledged that protection has been seen to wane over time and said it was currently unclear if annual boosters would be needed due to the new variants that continue to arise.
“I think some time in the middle of the summer we’re gonna know what the cadence is gonna be about how often we’re gonna have to vaccinate people,” said Fauci.
Growing share of Covid-19 deaths are among vaccinated people, but booster shots substantially lower the risk
(CNN)Since Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, there has been a wide gap in deaths between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But recent Covid deaths are much more evenly split as highly transmissible variants take hold, vaccine protection wanes and booster uptake stagnates.
Breakthrough infections have become more common in recent months, putting vulnerable populations at increased risk of severe disease or death as more and more transmissible variants continue to spread. This seems to be especially true for seniors in the United States, who were among the first to get their initial vaccine series.
In the second half of September — the height of the Delta wave — less than a quarter of all Covid-19 deaths were among vaccinated people, federal data shows. But in January and February, amid the Omicron surge, more than 40% of Covid-19 deaths were among vaccinated people.
Covid-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives in the United States since the first shot was administered in December 2020, and the unvaccinated are still far more likely to be hospitalized or die than people who are vaccinated with at least two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
But evidence continues to build around the critical importance of booster shots.
Of those vaccinated people who died from a breakthrough case of Covid-19 in January and February, less than a third had gotten a booster shot, according to a CNN analysis of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The remaining two-thirds had only received their primary series.
Overall, the risk of dying from Covid-19 is still about five times higher for unvaccinated people than it is for those vaccinated with at least their primary series, CDC data shows.
But there’s a significant disparity by level of vaccination, too: When adjusted for age, people vaccinated with only their initial series faced about three times greater risk of dying than those who also have their booster shot.
The CDC encourages people to be “up-to-date” on Covid-19 vaccinations — which includes getting boosters at the appropriate time — but still defines a person to be “fully vaccinated” if they’ve received at least their initial vaccination series.
But this week, a senior Biden administration official was more direct: All adults need a third shot.
Vaccination is the best way for individuals to protect themselves against Covid-19, and protection is most effective with at least three shots, the official said.
Others have emphasized the importance of boosters to save lives, too.
“Almost no one in this country should be dying from Covid” with up-to-date vaccinations and appropriate antiviral treatments, Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, said Saturday on CNN Newsroom.
“What we really should be worried about is getting the boosters that we need to stay up to date so with the new variants that we have, we don’t have unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations.”
Boosters benefit high-risk seniors most
In the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths — more than 80% — were among seniors age 65 and older.
In 2021, especially during the Delta surge, the average age of people dying of Covid-19 shifted younger. Less than 60% of those who died in September were 65 or older, according to provisional data from the CDC.
But 2022 has looked a lot more like 2020 and the first winter surge; so far this year, about three-quarters of all Covid-19 deaths have been among seniors.
Studies have suggested that Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness wanes over time. Data from the CDC published in January found that getting boosted was 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations during a period when Omicron was the dominant variant. In comparison, getting two shots was 57% effective when it had been at least six months past the second shot.
The vast majority of seniors completed their initial series more than a year ago now. And while booster uptake among seniors is better than other age groups, less than two-thirds of seniors have gotten a booster shot.
The CDC now recommends a second booster shot for this age group, too, and uptake is even lower.
CNN’s analysis of CDC data from recent months suggests that disparities in risk among vaccinated people who are boosted compared with those who only have their initial series are most prominent among this vulnerable age group.
Covid-19 deaths are preventable
Daily Covid-19 deaths in the US have fallen to a fraction of what they were in January and February amid the Omicron surge, but hundreds are still dying each day.
Cases are rising in nearly all states right now, and the White House has warned that another wave in the coming fall and winter could cause 100 million new cases — both raising the potential for more severe disease and tragic loss.
But experts say we have the tools to ensure infections don’t turn tragic.
Get CNN Health’s weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
Getting more Americans boosted against Covid-19 could make a big difference as the country heads into the fall and winter, Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said Monday.
“It’s really important that we try to get the half — or a little bit more than a half — of Americans who have only received two doses to get that third dose,” he said. “That may make a difference moving forward here, and it may particularly make a difference now that we’re coming into yet another wave of Covid-19.”