Coronavirus In China Spreads By Human-To-Human Transmission NPR's Noel King talks to Dr. Linfa Wang, a virologist at Duke-National University of Singapore, about a new virus that emerged in China last month and has spread outside that country.

Coronavirus In China Spreads By Human-To-Human Transmission

Coronavirus In China Spreads By Human-To-Human Transmission

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NPR's Noel King talks to Dr. Linfa Wang, a virologist at Duke-National University of Singapore, about a new virus that emerged in China last month and has spread outside that country.


The World Health Organization will convene an emergency meeting tomorrow about a virus that has infected almost 300 people, most of them in China. It's a type of virus known as a coronavirus. Experts think it passed from animals to humans in the city of Wuhan. Now they think it's spreading between humans. Dr. Linfa Wang is a virologist at the Duke-National University of Singapore. He joins me on Skype.

Doctor, thanks for being here.

LINFA WANG: Thank you for having me.

KING: So there's obviously some real concern over this virus. I wonder, what makes this more of a worry than, for example, the influenza virus, which kills thousands of people every year?

WANG: Yeah, that's an interesting question. And I like to borrow a quote from, you know, your former defense minister in fighting terrorism, you know. So he classified terrorism can have the known knowns, the known unknowns or the unknown unknowns. So fighting infectious disease, I think, is very similar because the enemies are in the dark and we don't know them. So you already listed flu influenza - and it's much more dangerous. But these are the known knowns, so that people are used to it. So SARS coronavirus 17 years ago, it's also a coronavirus virus. I would classify this as unknown unknowns. That's why...

KING: Ah, the SARS virus.

WANG: ...People were so scared. Yeah. So this new coronavirus is in the same family as SARS, but it's different from SARS. So I would call them the known unknowns. That's why people are still a little bit scared of that.

KING: OK, and Donald Rumsfeld, of course, is who you're referring to there. So the worry is we just don't know. What are the symptoms?

WANG: That's another kind of difficult part because the symptom is pneumonia. So if you get it, you get a fever. You get a, you know, a cough and difficult in breathing. So if you just judge by the syndrome, it can be caused by lots of different things, you know? So that's - again, it's difficult. At the early phase of this outbreak, there's no specific diagnosis there. You have this new coronavirus or it's just a pneumonia caused by other known pathogens.

KING: There are now new cases in Thailand, on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. Is China doing enough to contain this?

WANG: Early days that you can say they haven't done enough, but they did not know what virus was it. Now, you know, I personally experienced it in Wuhan. You know, you shouldn't (ph) go there. It's the Wuhan airport. It's like a war zone because it's all controlled with all the security, all the medical stuff there. At the departure gate, you're not allowed to go in. You'd line up, and then you go through group by group, group of five, walk slowly. And they make sure that you have, you know, three different cameras pointed at you. And they check with really high stringency.

KING: Were you in Wuhan in connection with this outbreak?

WANG: I went there because I have existing collaborations. So I booked the flights before the outbreak.


WANG: And - but because I'm, you know, a scientist and virologist - has been working this field for the last 25 years. So of course, I want to also take this prearranged opportunity to learn something firsthand on the ground.

KING: I see. The WHO is calling this emergency meeting tomorrow. What do you imagine coming out of that meeting?

WANG: Actually, I have been invited on that meeting, as well.


WANG: So I think everybody is asking what extra we can do to prevent this outbreak. And so I still remember, you know, in the SARS days, WHO issued a worldwide travel alert, basically said don't travel to the affected area unless you have to. Personally, I found that it's a very difficult decision to make. The Chinese New Year is coming. So do you legally ban every traveler to go from Wuhan to other cities in China (unintelligible)?

KING: Right, a time of - an enormous amount of travel in China, right?

WANG: It's 400 million people will be on the move in the next week, you know? So...

KING: Four hundred million, wow.

WANG: Yeah, it'll be a tough decision, and I don't want to be the person to make that decision.

KING: Three hundred people infected is more than we would like, but these numbers aren't huge. Are we running the risk of making this bigger than it is?

WANG: This is always difficult. I still remember the H1N1, you know, flu outbreak, start from Mexico and then spread to USA, Australia. In retrospect, there is a lot of criticism says that we overreacted. But when you're dealing with infectious disease, overreaction might be better than underreaction. You know, people were infected dies.

KING: Dr. Wang, thank you so much.

WANG: Thank you for having me.

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