Is North Korea really working on a coronavirus vaccine?

North Korea coronavirus vaccine
Photo via (stephan)/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

North Korea says it has begun working on its own COVID-19 vaccine, but many experts are skeptical about the claim. The North Korea coronavirus response, after all, has been tough to parse since the pandemic began. 

On July 18, the Korea Herald reported that the State Commission of Science and Technology said scientists are in the clinical trial stage of developing a vaccine for the virus. 

The report released by the commission says a medical biology institute under the country’s Academy of Medical Science leads vaccine development by using angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). It also claims scientists have already “confirmed the immunogenicity and safety of its candidate vaccine through animal tests” and have begun clinical trials, the Korea Herald wrote. 

Experts remain skeptical of North Korea’s claims for several reasons. 

For one, North Korea declared that it didn’t have a single COVID-19 case until after it announced that it was developing a vaccine. The BBC reported the totalitarian government reported its first infection on July 19, saying that a North Korean who had defected to South Korea three years ago returned to the country and tested positive. 

Analysts told the New York Times they find North Korea’s claim about the defector suspicious because those who flee the country usually escape to China and rarely return to North Korea. Furthermore, evidence has hinted that North Korea has had COVID-19 cases; it’s just been impossible to verify facts in the closed country. For example, Quartz reported in its newsletter that there are reports of COVID-19 deaths in the country, including more than 200 North Korean soldiers.

According to Quartz, North Korea said it would have to conduct its clinical trials abroad because the country claims it doesn’t have any COVID-19 patients to test.  According to CNN, the World Health Organization says North Korea has a testing problem: it has only tested 922 people of its population of 25 million. 

If North Korea truly doesn’t have a wealth of COVID-19 cases, experts say it makes no sense for the country to want to join the costly race to develop a vaccine. 

Additionally, North Korea lacks the infrastructure in its healthcare system to carry out that kind of development. CNN says North Korea took the virus seriously from the get-go because it knew its hospital system could be quickly overwhelmed. North Korean hospitals have a reputation for supply shortages and a lack of electricity and water. 

Vaccine development is also costly. Analysts at Quartz are skeptical that a country that has relied on the World Health Organization to distribute other vaccines to its citizens has the money to invest in vaccine development. 

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: Korea Herald, BBC, New York Times, Quartz, CNN

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