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North Korea, a suspect behind the pandemic, still has no official COVID cases

North Korea declared on Sunday that it had sealed off a town near its border with South Korea and declared a “maximum” national emergency. A North Korean who defected to South Korea three years ago but secretly returned to the northern city of Kaesong last Sunday was “suspected of having been infected with the malicious virus,” the official Central News Agency of the North said on Sunday.

While reporting the incident, the news agency did not go so far as to describe it as the first case of coronavirus in the country, saying the test result was “unclear”.

In late January, the country sealed off its borders and did business with neighbouring China, which accounts for nine-tenths of its foreign trade. It cracked down on the smugglers who keep its thriving unofficial markets running. It quarantined all diplomats in Pyongyang for a month.

In February and March, US officials observed a decline in military activity in North Korea, which is seen as a sign that there are COVID-19 cases in the country. General Robert B. Abrams noted that the North Korean military “was locked up for about 30 days” and “did not fly any aircraft for 24 days.

North Korea also wants to work on a vaccine. The country “could use this legitimate vaccine aspiration as a way to improve its biotech capabilities,” said Andrew Weber, who was deputy defense minister for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

“I believe that they will use a biological weapon against us rather than a nuclear weapon,”

he says.

North Korea has had modern equipment for years.

“Our fumbling around with the response [to COVID] has shown the world how vulnerable we are to biological attack,

says Weber.

“So, countries that have thought about procuring biological weapons or that have small programmes might see the opportunity, and I would also include non-state actors and terrorist groups”.

According to North Korean defectors and US intelligence analyses, there has been a biological weapons operation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the 1960s. As early as 1993, Russian intelligence reported that North Korea was conducting military research into anthrax, cholera, bubonic plague and smallpox. In 2002, Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, then Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said that “the U.S. government believes that North Korea has one of the most robust offensive biological weapons programs in the world.

A study shows that bats with SARS- and MERS-like corona viruses exist in Korea. These would only need to be collected and optimized.

Considering that different species of bats live together in the same habitat under confined conditions, it is likely that the different corona viruses of Korean bats experience cross-species transmission events due to the richness of host species. Continuous monitoring should therefore be carried out, especially at the time of awakening of wintering bats in habitats where different bat species rest together, in order to better understand the development of coronaviruses in bats. It is noteworthy that betacoronaviruses were only found at the site where Rhinolophus ferrumequinum was the most important bat species, and that they were related to SARS- and MERS-related CoVs identified in China and South Korea, respectively. In this study, no betacorona viruses were closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

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