North Korea has requested that 3 million doses of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine it was allocated be sent to countries with severe outbreaks, according to UNICEF.
“The DPRK Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) has communicated that the 2.97 million doses being offered to DPR Korea by COVAX may be relocated to severely affected countries in view of the limited global supply of COVID-19 vaccines and recurrent surge in some countries,” a UNICEF spokesperson said in an email to VOA’s Korean Service on Tuesday.
COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) is an international vaccine distribution program targeting lower-income nations. UNICEF obtains and distributes the vaccines for the program.
“MOPH has said it will continue to communicate with the COVAX facility to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the coming months,” the spokesperson told VOA.
Pyongyang has not reported any COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in late December 2019. In its latest report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it had tested 37, 291 people for COVID-19 as of August 19 and all were negative.
Although there is widespread skepticism of these numbers, North Korea has imposed strict antivirus containment measures such as curtailed domestic travel and border closings.
Edwin Salvador, head of WHO’s Pyongyang office, said in an August 19 email to VOA that COVAX had allocated 2.97 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine to North Korea and that it was awaiting a response from the North Korean authorities.
However, UNICEF told VOA Korean on August 5 that the North Korean government had not yet fully completed the necessary preparation for receiving the vaccine from COVAX, so the supply was delayed.
The country’s antiquated and uneven health care system limits its ability to handle many types of COVID-19 vaccines such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which must be transported and kept under ultra-cold conditions.
Chinese-made vaccines, as well as those from Russia and AstraZeneca, do not require that level of refrigeration.
But in July, North Korea rejected shipments of AstraZeneca’s vaccine because of concerns about side effects, according to a report from the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), a South Korean think tank with ties to that country’s intelligence agencies.
According to the INSS report, North Korea was concerned about the effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccines but was interested Russia’s vaccine, Sputnik V.