North Korea on Friday announced 21 new COVID-19 deaths as the country struggles to contain an outbreak that is fast spiralling out of control. With infections spreading like wildfire, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un on Saturday declared the prevailing conditions in the country as a “great disaster.”

The country, which had claimed to be COVID-free for more than two years, announced its first COVID-19 case a couple of days back.

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Since then, 27 people have died, while the country’s suspected COVID-19 tally has climbed sharply: while Pyongyang reported 18,000 new infections on Friday, that figure climbed sharply on Saturday, with 174,440 new infections reported.

While North Korea had closed its borders after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, mysterious cases of fever have been rising in the country since late April.

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As it stands, the total number of people who have exhibited symptoms of fever stand at 524,440, among whom 243,630 have recovered. The remaining 280,810 people are still being treated in quarantine.

Experts, however, fear that this wave is merely the tip of the iceberg for North Korea: the country has an unvaccinated population, antiquated healthcare systems, and possibly, no access to any COVID-19 vaccine.

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While North Korea had announced the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in August 2020, there has been no news of said jab ever since. Pyongyang has also rejected offers by the United Nations-backed Covax initiative for vaccine distribution.

North Korea also remains under complete lockdown, which Kim Jong-un announced on Thursday after the first coronavirus infection was reported in the country.