North Korea says it is joining the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, a global contest that has already drafted in some of the world’s best medical minds and is shaping up to cost billions of dollars.Just don’t expect it to take the lead anytime soon.

If North Korea’s State Commission of Science and Technology is to be believed, clinical trials for the country’s domestic vaccine candidate are already underway — and a debate is now happening about how to proceed with the third phase, which involves human testing.

To the outside world, the claim could appear dubious.The race to develop a vaccine for a disease that has infected nearly 14.5 million people and killed more than 605,000 globally is one of the most daunting and pressing technological and scientific challenges the world has faced in recent memory.

It will likely cost huge sums of money, and nations are investing heavily to win what’s shaping up to become a competition of scientific superiority and national pride.Yet North Korea has one of the most dilapidated health care systems on the planet, and for decades it has relied on assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) to supply its people with vaccines and immunizations.

Then there’s the fact that Pyongyang has not publicly admitted to any infections inside the country.So why would a country that hasn’t claimed a single case of Covid-19 and is in economic dire straits spend time, money and resources on developing a vaccine?

There’s no simple answer, but it’s likely a combination of genuine fear of the virus as well as a bid to convince North Koreans that leader Kim Jong Un will, once again, rise to the challenge and protect his people.

North Korea was one of the first states to view Covid-19 as a serious threat, and with good reason: most experts believe its health care system would be quickly overwhelmed in a pandemic.

Many North Korean medical facilities do not have access to reliable electricity or running water. Medicine and other equipment are often in short supply.Testing capacity also appears to be an issue.

As of early July, only 922 people in a country of about 25 million had been tested for the virus, according to the WHO representative in North Korea, Dr. Edwin Salvador.Salvador said in an email at the time that since the pandemic began, 25,551 people had been quarantined and later released. As many as 255 people — all North Korean nationals — were still being kept in quarantine as of July 3.

Many independent public health experts are skeptical North Korea’s claims to have no confirmed Covid-19 infections.

The virus is highly infectious, and could have easily seeped into the country undetected.That being said, North Korea is well placed to stop clusters from spreading, as it can quickly enact the type of lockdown measures that other states were slower to embrace.

It is, after all, a dictatorship that strictly controls who comes in — usually only a small number of tourists, diplomats and aid workers — and where its citizens can and cannot go. Defectors say average North Koreans are not permitted to travel far from home without government approval.By most accounts, the pandemic appears under control in North Korea. Kim said earlier this month that his country’s efforts have been a “shining success,” but warned his officials not to get complacent as the global health crisis has not yet abated.

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