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New Coronavirus Infects More Than 200 In China


China has confirmed that the newly discovered coronavirus can be transmitted between humans. The virus has already sickened more than 200 people, and now the World Health Organization is convening an emergency meeting to look at how much of a threat the virus poses and whether international travel restrictions should be put in place to contain it. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins me now.

Hey, Jason.


CHANG: So what specifically led the WHO to call this emergency meeting?

BEAUBIEN: So over the weekend, the number of confirmed cases tripled.


BEAUBIEN: And that really just got everyone's attention. There were 138 cases that were confirmed over the weekend. That puts the total up above 200. We've got several deaths in there. Now, this might just be better testing and reporting. They've rolled out some new diagnostic tests, so it might just be that they're detecting it more.

But there are a couple of new key things that are really making people concerned. One is that you've got top Chinese health officials now saying that this virus can be transmitted between people, and it can spread, and has spread, to medical staff. So basically, before last week, the thinking was, oh, maybe it's just people are getting this picked up from animals or meat. All the early cases were around a wholesale food seafood market in the city of Wuhan. And if it was just animal-to-human transmission and that was sort of the end of it, then there's not as much concern. But if these chains of transmission can start moving through people, that's when people start to get really worried.

CHANG: And do we know how quickly the virus can spread?

BEAUBIEN: It appears that it can move quite quickly. I mean, we didn't even know about this until December. You know, this is all quite new. You know, as I said, it started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It moved to Beijing, Shanghai. Got some cases down in the southern Guangdong province.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

BEAUBIEN: Also, there's cases that have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Now, all of those people have got links to Wuhan, but it is clear that this can move geographically. And there's great concern about this spreading inside hospital environments because in the MERS outbreak, if you remember that from 2015, MERS popped up in South Korea, and there were 200 cases, 38 fatalities. All of that spread initially started inside hospital facilities inside South Korea, and it led to schools being shut down, basically sort of brought things to a standstill in Seoul for a while. And this is from that same family of viruses. It's similar to the SARS virus as well, which erupted out of China in 2002 and...

CHANG: Right.

BEAUBIEN: ...Quickly spread around the world, killed, like, 800 people. So there's big concerns. Is this another MERS or another SARS? And that's what people are wondering right now.

CHANG: And what are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

BEAUBIEN: So it's similar to a flu. You can get a very bad pneumonia. Obviously, they said there have been a few fatalities at this point, so it can be quite severe.

CHANG: OK. Now, I realize the Chinese Lunar New Year is approaching, which means a lot of travel all over China.


CHANG: How worried are public health officials about that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, they're quite concerned about that. They're worried about people in Wuhan who have not yet gotten sick or haven't actually disclosed to anyone that they're sick going back to see their friends and family and potentially spreading this to lots of other people and a pandemic kind of gets a foothold. That's what they're worried about.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien.

Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.