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North Korea hails ‘good results’ on COVID-19 as fever cases pass two million

North Korea said on Friday it was achieving “good results” in its fight against its first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak, as the number of people with fever symptoms rose past two million.

A wave of COVID infections, which North Korea first confirmed last week, has fanned worry about a lack of medical resources and vaccines in the isolated country heavily sanctioned for its nuclear weapons program.

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North Korea has not responded to offers from its old enemies, South Korea and the United States, to send help, a South Korean official said.

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and US President Joe Biden, due to arrive in South Korea on a visit later on Friday, are expected to discuss help.

North Korea reported 263,370 more people with fever symptoms, and two more deaths, taking its total fever caseload since late April to 2.24 million as of Thursday evening, including 65 deaths, according to its KCNA state news agency.

North Korea lacks COVID testing capacity and it has not specified how many of those people with fever have been confirmed to have contracted COVID.

Despite the caseload, the North has said farming continues and factories are working. It is also planning a state funeral for a retired general.

“Even under the maximum emergency epidemic prevention situation, normal production is kept at key industrial sectors and large-scale construction projects are propelled without let-up,” KCNA reported.

“Good results are reported steadily in the ongoing anti-epidemic war,” it said.

The UN human rights agency has warned of the “devastating” consequences of COVID for North Korea’s 25 million people, while World Health Organization officials worry an unchecked spread could lead to the emergence of deadlier new variants.

But North Korea said on Wednesday its outbreak was taking a “favorable turn.”

‘Consultations’

Officials in South Korea say it is hard to draw conclusions, partly because it is not clear how North Korea is calculating the number of fever and COVID patients.

Cases of fever reported by the government have declined in the capital, Pyongyang, but risen in rural provinces.

But Martyn Williams, a researcher at the US-based 38 North monitoring group, said North Korea’s figures were unlikely to give an accurate account of what is going on, either through error or deliberate manipulation.

“I doubt they represent the exact picture,” he said on Twitter.

South Korea and the United States have both offered to help North Korea fight the virus, including sending aid, but have not had a response, South Korea’s deputy national security adviser said.

But the allies, who North Korea denounces as its main enemies as it justifies its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, would likely be North Korea’s last resort in seeking help, said South Korean legislators who were briefed by its main security agency on Thursday.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Park Jin, told parliament Yoon and Biden would discuss help for North Korea when they meet on Saturday.

“South Korea and the United States are continuing consultations on providing humanitarian assistance, especially over COVID-19, to the North,” Park said.

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
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As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions

Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.
However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was “suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures.”
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It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.
Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
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