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Chinese Health Officials: More Die From Newly Identified Coronavirus

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

China is scrambling to contain a never before seen strain of coronavirus. At least nine people have died; at least 440 are infected, and that includes 15 medical staffers. It has already made its way to six countries now, including the United States after an American was diagnosed upon his return from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated. We're joined by NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So how worried is the Chinese government about this right now?

FENG: They're pretty worried, but they're also being really careful. They don't want to cause a panic, but they're also trying to educate the public in how to protect themselves. Some top Chinese health official held a press conference today that NPR went to. Here's Li Bin, China's vice director of its national health commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LI BIN: (Through interpreter) We have ensured management of export channels such as temperature checks at airports, train and bus stations and ports. And we will reduce as much as possible events with large congregations.

FENG: But the problem is that neither - none of these people still know exactly what caused the virus. They think it came from this open-air market where wild animals were sold and eaten. But they don't know what type of animal's behind the virus, so that makes it really hard to prevent future outbreaks.

GREENE: And now, I mean, this has arrived in the United States. It's arrived in other countries, which is beginning to raise more alarms around the world. I mean, can you just remind me of the timeline of all this? It seems to have almost come out of nowhere.

FENG: It's really exploded over the last couple of days, and there are several theories as to why. But the first case was reported about 3 1/2 weeks ago on New Year's Eve. And then the cases climbed, but they plateaued for about three weeks and stayed - and never broke, about 60 confirmed cases. It's really only been in the last three days that we've this sudden jump in the number of cases in China, and you've also seen this jump in measures that authorities have taken to screen for the virus and to prevent it from spreading.

So as Li Bin mentioned, there are now temperature sensors set up at train stations and on airplanes. They're even doing temperature checks at some hotels. But people are understandably very, very worried.

GREENE: Do they feel like their government is doing enough in China?

FENG: There's a lot of debate online about this. There's skepticism that they're even being told how severe the problem is. As of today, there are more than 450 confirmed cases, but that's a huge jump just in the last four days from the low numbers that were reported over the last few weeks. A London study from Imperial College there has gone viral in China, and that estimates that there should be at least 1,700 cases based on similar types of viruses that have broken out before.

China refutes that study. Here's the director of China's disease control center, Gao Fu, today responding to the study.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAO FU: (Through interpreter) This is a mathematical model. The number you are referring to was the maximum in the range predicted. Faced with viruses like this, facts must be facts, and theories are just theories.

FENG: So they've been really, really strict in controlling information about the virus. They've actually even detained some people who they said were spreading rumors on social media, when these people claimed that they had relatives who've gotten sick or even died and were not reported in the official statistics.

But they have a reason for being suspicious. China's government does have a history of deliberately underreporting outbreaks. The most recent example is just last year. There was something called African swine flu. Provincial authorities denied that the case was really severe, and that let the flu spread to other pig farms and wiped out something like 40% of the pigs in China. And then most infamously, in 2003, SARS, which ended up killing more than 800 people, but the Chinese government denied.

GREENE: NPR's Emily Feng reporting on this virus outbreak in China. She joins us this morning. Thanks so much. We appreciate it, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, David.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to African swine flu. In fact, the disease is a virus known as African swine fever.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHYSICS HOUSE BAND "TERATOLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 23, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we incorrectly refer to African swine flu. In fact, the disease is a virus known as African swine fever.

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