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Coronavirus Outbreak Now Reaches 40,000 Cases


Chinese health officials are reporting that more than 40,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus. More than 900 people have died. This appears to be a rapid escalation of the outbreak that began just two months ago. NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman is in our studios to talk more about it.

Hey there, Nurith.


CORNISH: All right, what are we learning about the nature of the outbreak given these new numbers?

AIZENMAN: Well, we know that almost all of the cases are in China. And in fact, most of them are still in Hubei, the province where this new coronavirus was first detected. There are only a few hundred or so cases outside China in about two dozen or so countries.

On the other hand, officials with the World Health Organization say that while China has been providing the broad numbers, China is not providing key information that would tell health officials where this outbreak is going. So China, for instance, will report that they've confirmed, say, 3,000 more cases in a given day. And what China often doesn't tell the WHO is how many of those cases are people who were newly infected that week. You know, are they cases from a month ago where the tests have just now come back, or are they new? And the reason we need to know that is that's what tells you - is this outbreak accelerating, how fast or is this just about uncovering a backlog of older cases?

CORNISH: So the visit by the WHO must be incredibly important, right? I mean, is it the sense that they can shed more light on this?

AIZENMAN: Right. So there's this international team of experts that is arriving. And for weeks, the WHO had been asking China to let it send in that expert team. That's the common practice with outbreaks. The U.S. has also been trying to send a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But China had been slow to grant permission. And it's just today that the WHO team leaders touched down in China. WHO officials say the rest of the members will arrive soon - between 10 to 15 people - but it's still unclear what they'll be doing.

CORNISH: Is there a sense of just how deadly this virus is at this point?

AIZENMAN: On the positive side, the WHO says more than 80% of infections result in mild symptoms. So far, just 2% of reported cases, roughly, have resulted in death. And that percentage could even go down further once officials can find out how many people might've been infected without showing any symptoms at all. But World Health officials also warn that China has access to a lot of lifesaving medical technology - you know, ventilators, intensive care units. And at the press conference today, the WHO official who's in charge of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, had this to say.


MICHAEL RYAN: This disease may appear relatively mild in the context of a sophisticated health system. That may not be the case should this disease reach a system that is not as capable as that of China.

AIZENMAN: You know, in other words, if the virus spreads to lower-income countries in, say, Africa, the death rate could end up being substantially higher.

CORNISH: And yet, we're not hearing about Africa so much, right? I mean, there's other continents that are concerned right now.

AIZENMAN: Right. And in fact, today officials also expressed concern about some of the ongoing transmission that's occurred in Europe, with cases of travelers who arrived in France and the United Kingdom and then ended up passing it on to other people who passed it on. And they're saying, you know, while that's just a spark, it might be ultimately a larger outbreak from that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

Thank you so much for this update.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.