ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's too early to declare the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China an international health emergency. That's according to the World Health Organization. The decision was made after an extraordinary two-day meeting by a panel of experts. At a press conference in Geneva, the director-general of the WHO explained that most of the hundreds of people who've been infected so far are in China. But he also had this to say.
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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China. It has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.
SHAPIRO: Officials have shut down transportation out of the city of 11 million people where the virus first emerged, Wuhan. NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here in the studio.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this transportation shutdown in Wuhan. How is it playing out?
AIZENMAN: Yeah. So this is basically the equivalent of locking down Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. It's hard to overstate how drastic a step this is. I mean, Wuhan is a city of 11 million people. It's the transportation hub of central China.
And Chinese authorities have now suspended subways, buses, trains, flights. And they're doing this at a time when literally tens of millions of people are on the move within China as families gather to celebrate a major holiday there, the Lunar New Year. Also, it's possible we're going to see more of these shutdowns because today they've announced similar restrictions in two other cities.
SHAPIRO: And does the World Health Organization support these moves? I know there's been some criticism.
AIZENMAN: Yeah. A number of public health experts that I've spoken to say this is a terrible idea. It could cause panic, drive people underground, basically backfire. Also, the virus has now spread beyond Wuhan to lots of other cities in China. So it's kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Now, when I asked the WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, about it, he was diplomatic. He stressed that this is China's right. But he also signaled that this is not the WHO's recommendation. He noted that the WHO's role is to provide, quote, "rational science-based public health guidance." And he said he hopes that this measure by China is, quote, "short in duration." Also, this decision by China really threw a wrench into the WHO's deliberations about whether to declare this outbreak a global emergency.
SHAPIRO: Describe what the implications of that declaration would be. Why does it matter whether WHO says this is a global health emergency?
AIZENMAN: So when the WHO declares an international health emergency, it's really a way for them to give expert recommendations on how countries and people can protect themselves. But it's a big deal. It can carry a lot of weight in terms of galvanizing action by countries. It's only been declared for a handful of prior epidemics. And this panel of experts was in the middle of meeting on the issue Wednesday when China blindsided them with a decision to shut down transportation in Wuhan.
It's such an unusual step that the chair of that advisory committee says, right before they were about to make the decision, they had to stop to get more information. They were wondering, you know, is this based on some dramatic change in the way the disease is spreading? Essentially, is there something China is not telling us? Then, this morning, he says China was able to reassure them that, no, that's not the case.
SHAPIRO: So as of now, the WHO says this is not a global health emergency. Have they said what might push it to that level?
AIZENMAN: Yeah. I mean, the things that Tedros pointed to were that even though the virus is spreading right now, that appears to be mostly within family groups or health workers - in other words, people who've had really close contact with someone who is sick. At this time, they're not seeing the kind of spread you would get with, say, a virus like the flu, where people are passing it on to strangers on, say, the subway.
Similarly, while travelers from China have shown up in other countries with the virus, including in the United States, that hasn't started new chains of transmission in those other countries. Also, so far, there haven't been that many deaths. But if any of those things change, then that would really escalate the alarm level. And, you know, the evidence is still coming in. This is still very much a situation in progress. And there are a lot of unanswered questions.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman with the latest on the coronavirus out of China.
AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.
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