MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now, stock markets here in the U.S. and in Europe tumbled today out of concerns about the coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19. It has now spread to 30 countries. Public health officials in Iran, in Italy and South Korea in particular are struggling to contain the disease that began in China. The World Health Organization says it is deeply concerned but that the outbreak is not a pandemic yet, and there are encouraging trends, as NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The most hopeful news is that the epidemic in China appears to have plateaued in late January and is continuing on a good trajectory. Dr. Bruce Aylward just completed a World Health Organization trip to China with a scientific delegation, and he says there's no doubt in his mind that the trend is real. Speaking at a news conference in Beijing, he said just yesterday he'd spoken to a researcher in Wuhan who is testing potential drugs to treat COVID-19.
BRUCE AYLWARD: And when I asked him what challenge they're finding in trying to implement the trial, he said the single biggest one is recruiting new patients into the trial because of the drop in cases.
HARRIS: That's a good kind of problem. The message from China is that it's not hopeless, he says. It is possible to control this disease.
AYLWARD: Now we're starting to see countries like Italy take extremely aggressive actions. What China has demonstrated is you have to do this, and if you do it, you can save lives and prevent thousands of cases of what is a very difficult disease.
HARRIS: What succeeded is getting the public's full cooperation to do the simplest tasks.
AYLWARD: Believe it or not, the most valuable thing the whole population can do is wash its hands continually.
HARRIS: Also, avoid crowds as you'd find in schools and other large gatherings. Restricting travel is not on Aylward's list of useful actions.
AYLWARD: You don't have to lock down cities is the big message from China, in fact.
HARRIS: The WHO's scientific delegation's task was to learn what worked in China and spread that word to the rest of the world, but even during their brief trip, the disease was making serious inroads in South Korea, Iran and Italy.
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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: There is a lot of speculation about whether this increase means that this epidemic has now become a pandemic.
HARRIS: WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the label isn't simply whether a disease is on multiple continents but whether it's out of control and doing significant damage.
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GHEBREYESUS: Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.
HARRIS: There is still time for countries to get in front of it. The WHO's top priorities are to protect health care workers, to protect vulnerable people such as those who are sick and elderly and to protect vulnerable countries. Dr. Michael Ryan at the WHO says even the advanced nations of Europe have work to do since their hospitals are pretty full these days with flu patients. Those beds might be needed for coronavirus patients.
MICHAEL RYAN: Even now, slowing down the virus spreading in Europe in order for the flu season to end will free up significant capacity of the health system. So even slowing down the virus by a month or six weeks has a massive positive benefit to the system.
HARRIS: Health officials in the United States know that they can't count on identifying every single new case immediately and isolating those patients, so they're also thinking about containment measures, like school closings, that helped beat back the disease in China.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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