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Coronavirus Continues To Spread Outside China


Public health officials are not calling the coronavirus a pandemic - not yet. Human-to-human transmission of the virus has been confirmed in every major city in China. And the government there is taking increasingly broad actions to try and prevent further spread. We've got NPR global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien with us from Hong Kong. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So what is the latest you're hearing from public health officials there?

BEAUBIEN: So they just had a press conference with Dr. Gabriel Leung. He's an expert on coronaviruses. He worked on SARS. He led Hong Kong's attack on the bird flu outbreak in 2009. And he's been doing some modeling, looking at what is happening with this current outbreak. And what he's finding is that it's accelerating, and it's accelerating rapidly. And in his predictions, it's only just getting started. He shared this report with the WHO, and then just right after that, he gave it over to the press. And it's fairly, fairly devastating.

Basically, he's predicting that this pandemic is going to peak in late April, early May with about 150,000 cases a day happening in the city of Jiaxing (ph) alone, never mind the rest of China. He's up front, however, that this is a worst-case scenario he's laying out here. And it's based on the assumption that no new measures are put in place to get control of the outbreak that's currently going on.

MARTIN: Right. So at the top, I said that they're not calling this a pandemic. So we should just reinforce the fact that, as you just said, that's worst-case scenario. Like, that is what a pandemic looks like, if it starts affecting that many people. What measures, I mean, can be taken? We've heard about these travel bans, trying to contain people. But what else is possible?

BEAUBIEN: So, you know, again, Leung and his colleagues are very upfront that there's a lot that is still not known about this. But they say the key is containing things now. And Leung says they need to limit the spread of the virus.


GABRIEL LEUNG: Substantial draconian measures may need to be taken.

MARTIN: Whoa, draconian?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. I mean, it was fairly powerful language - draconian measures to isolate the sick, quarantine people who may have been exposed, limit people from moving around, cancel large public gatherings. Hong Kong's already canceled schools through at least February 17. Shanghai has now announced that they're going to order businesses and government offices to stay closed until February 9. Every day, we're getting more buses and trains and planes that are getting cancelled in different parts of China. And, you know, at this point, nobody thinks there's going to be some magic pill or vaccine that's going to come in and stop this outbreak. Right now, again, it's all about containment.

MARTIN: And so while their modeling is just about containing it in China, I mean, are they saying anything specific about the threat right now outside of China?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So just to be clear, you know, these are Hong Kong researchers. To some degree, they were looking at, what is the threat to Hong Kong? However, these are people who have worked with China for a long time. They know this region well. They worked on SARS. They've worked on, you know, the bird flu. And so their main focus was what's happening in China right now. But they did say that, particularly, if this worst-case modeling plays out and you get hundreds of thousands of cases a day, this is not going to stay in China.


LEUNG: We have to be prepared that this particular epidemic may be about to become a global epidemic.

BEAUBIEN: A global pandemic. You know, and he's basically saying that it's not going to stop this rapid acceleration unless something new comes in - this rapid acceleration that we've seen over the last week.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Hong Kong. Thank you.

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

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