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World Health Organization Provides Update On COVID-19


The number of new coronavirus cases reported in China seems to be slowing. Public health officials say it's too soon to know what's going on. The most hopeful explanation is that the disease, now called COVID-19, is starting to ebb. That's the most hopeful. But there are other possible explanations, as NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is here to tell us.

Hi, Richard.


KELLY: So when we say it seems to be slowing, what do the numbers look like?

HARRIS: Well, the - in absolute numbers, they are still kind of grim. The number of cases now tops 45,000. Ninety-nine percent of them are in China, and there are more than 1,100 deaths also reported in China. So - but the toll - the good news is the toll doesn't seem to be mounting quite as quickly as it had been. And today the World Health Organization gave a briefing about the situation. And one top official, Dr. Mike Ryan, gave his interpretation of what's going on.


MIKE RYAN: The stabilization in cases in the last number of days is very reassuring. The behavior of the virus outside Wuhan, Hubei, doesn't appear at this point to be as aggressive or as accelerated, and that gives us the opportunity for containment and potential interruption of transmission of the virus.

KELLY: OK. But - so Richard, what else, other than a real slowing of the epidemic - what else would explain this trend?

HARRIS: Well, we don't have a really clear idea about the time lag between when cases are, you know - arise and how soon they're reported. So this could be, you know, essentially a variation in how quickly paperwork moves through the Chinese health care system and then onto the WHO in Switzerland. It's also the case that China has been tweaking the definition of this disease, and that can certainly affect trends. But Ryan says it appears the Chinese are now using a broader definition of the disease.


RYAN: That shift is actually likely to generate more confirmed cases, not less. This is not an attempt to ignore cases. It's an attempt to widen the net and include milder cases and all lab-confirmed cases, regardless of the symptoms.

HARRIS: That said, the WHO hosted a two-day meeting of technical experts to identify urgent priorities. And on that list was the need for better disease tracking, as well as a better understanding of exactly how this virus is transmitted. We still don't really know.

KELLY: Yeah. OK. So there's that. There's better disease tracking, as you mentioned. What else is the WHO saying could help the situation?

HARRIS: Well, officials said that Chinese scientists who called into the meeting said what they really need is a faster test for the disease, one that they could run quickly in doctors' offices and clinics and so on, like your rapid strep test at your doctor's office, right?

KELLY: Sure.

HARRIS: And finding new drugs, of course, is a priority. But to do that, scientists say what they would really like to have is a standing - standard testing protocol so results from the studies that are already springing up in China can be compared with one another.

KELLY: What about trying to prevent it altogether - a vaccine?

HARRIS: Absolutely. That's - there are already a number of those in the works, but they're at least a year away, so that's sort of a middle-range hope, if you will. Vaccines are not going to stop a new epidemic - certainly not during the early going.

KELLY: Question that's been on my mind, which is, there have been a lot of questions about how China handled this, particularly in the early stages - the WHO has repeatedly come to China's defense. Why? And is it warranted?

HARRIS: Well, we clearly don't have the whole story about how China has reacted within its own borders. But we do know that unlike the SARS epidemic nearly two decades ago, China has been very helpful in controlling the global spread of the new coronavirus.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he's not feeling any pressure to praise China. He says it's deserved.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: If you see the number of cases in China, it's more than 40,000. But in the rest of the world, we have around 400 and only one death. So let the truth speak for itself.

HARRIS: He said after the crisis is over, everyone can go back, identify the inevitable missteps and then learn from them.

KELLY: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.