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Former CDC Director Breaks Down U.S. Readiness For Coronavirus


Earlier today British Airways suspended its flights to and from mainland China. It's one company's response to a growing outbreak of the coronavirus, which has now reached 15 countries. More than 6,000 have been infected with the virus, and more than 130 have died.


The response to this new viral threat is, in part, informed by the lessons learned during another major epidemic that originated in China in the early 2000s - the SARS virus. Some 8,000 people were infected, and nearly 800 people died worldwide. Julie Gerberding was the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during that epidemic, and she joins us now.


JULIE GERBERDING: Thank you - great to be here.

SHAPIRO: So you led the American response to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. How does the coronavirus compare so far?

GERBERDING: Well, I have to admit there's a little bit of deja vu all over again here.


GERBERDING: This is a unfolding situation. It's, obviously, spreading quickly in China, and we still have a lot of uncertainty about how bad it will be and how far it will go.

SHAPIRO: Well, during the SARS outbreak, China was accused of not being transparent, of trying to project a misleading picture of an outbreak that was under control when it was not. How different is their response this time around so far?

GERBERDING: I think the global community is very relieved to learn about this early in the game. We've seen more transparency both about the unfolding of the actual spread of the disease but also the virology and getting the genome of the virus out quickly to the scientists around the world who might be in a position to help accelerate vaccine and treatment opportunities.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that means that this disease will likely be brought under control more quickly than SARS was?

GERBERDING: Boy, these are early days. And I don't think anyone can predict what it will take to bring this under control, given how far and how fast it's spread already.


GERBERDING: Certainly, having vaccines and treatments will be helpful, but I am a little concerned that we're overpromising on their availability. It's going to take time to get those things developed and then approved and manufactured in quantities sufficient to have much impact on what's going on right now.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us a specific example of something the U.S. did during the SARS outbreak that you think is wise for the U.S. to do again, looking at the coronavirus?

GERBERDING: Well, one of the things that, I think, is absolutely critical is to maintain just absolutely open and frequent communication, certainly at the level of the CDC but most importantly at the local level, especially in communities where many people have traveled back and forth from China - putting it into perspective, telling people what's going on, what we wish we knew but haven't figured out yet and promising to update them as soon as we have new information. That really builds local trust. And at the end of the day, that's what matters most.

SHAPIRO: We're seeing some pretty dramatic steps as responses to the outbreak. I mean, British Airways has suspended China flights. The city of Wuhan, home to more than 11 million people, is on lockdown. Do you think this scale of response is appropriate?

GERBERDING: You know, I would never criticize measures in the early days of something that could be as serious as this outbreak. It's hard to predict what's necessary until you have the benefit of the retrospective scope. So taking measures to reduce travel, to decrease the contact that one person has with other people - these are standard quarantine-like approaches. And depending on how early you apply them and how successful people comply with them, they can make a difference in, at least, slowing down spread. And right now, given the intense pressure on the health care system, anything we can do to kind of spread out the situation over a longer arc of time - that can actually be very helpful in ensuring that essential medical services are available to people.

SHAPIRO: Julie Gerberding, former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - she's currently chief patient officer for the pharmaceutical company Merck.

Thank you for talking with us today.

GERBERDING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.