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Can China’s information about the novel coronavirus be trusted?

China is struggling to contain an outbreak of novel coronavirus that has now spread in small numbers to at least 25 other countries or territories. Both the official death toll and the number of confirmed cases have doubled in recent days, and there are doubts about the accuracy of data the Chinese government is reporting. William Brangham is joined by Georgetown University’s Lawrence Gostin.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported earlier, China is still struggling with a surging coronavirus outbreak, one that's spread, in small numbers, to at least 25 other territories or countries.

    William Brangham gets an update now on where things stand today.

  • William Brangham:

    The official death toll from this coronavirus has more than doubled in the last week. The official number of confirmed cases has also more than doubled.

    Chinese officials have said for several days that they believe the number of new cases may be slowing, but how accurate are these official numbers? Without knowing that, we can't really know how bad this outbreak is or how bad it might get.

    Joining me now is Lawrence Gostin. He's a professor of global health law, and he directs the World Health Organization's Collaborating Center at Georgetown University.

    Welcome.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    Help us understand.

    We know that there is this surging number of cases. Where do you see this going?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Well, I mean, I think we have to be prepared for the reasonable possibility or even likelihood that we won't contain this in the foreseeable future.

    You have got more than a billion people in China with a readily transmissible infection. If it spreads in that congested population, and then, eventually, the travel bans are lifted, one can just foresee that it could escalate.

  • William Brangham:

    Escalate meaning this could turn into a true global pandemic?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    It could.

    The touchstone is twofold. I mean, one, can we slow it on mainland China? But, two, are there going to be mini-epidemics in other parts of the world? That's what happened with SARS.

    And, right now, we have got so-called human-to-human community transmission. That has nothing to do with travel from China in places like France, the U.K., and Hong Kong. So, we need to watch that carefully.

    If it balloons into an epidemic in those places, we could be having a pandemic quite easily.

  • William Brangham:

    What is it that most concerns you when you look at this and you look at what is being done in China, what is being done elsewhere? What's most troubling to you?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    I mean, first of all, I mean, I think, looking back, it's very, very clear that there was a lot of transmission going on in China before they actually reported it.

    And some five million people left Wuhan, which is the hot zone of contagion in the country. And so that was the first thing.

    But the other problem is, is that they haven't accepted cooperation and help in a very fulsome way.

  • William Brangham:

    You mean from the WHO, from the CDC.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    From the WHO, the U.S. CDC and others, who are really experienced in terms of fighting an epidemic. And that's a problem.

    It's many weeks into the epidemic now and, if you look at when it really started, more than a month. And only today an exploratory team from WHO landed in Beijing. It's not going to Wuhan or Hubei province, where it's happening.

    And so we don't know their rules of engagement. Are they going to be able to have independent verification of the data? Will they have access to patients? Will they have genomic sequencing data from various parts of China? Or will China be inscrutable?

    I mean, it's a country that really prizes itself on its sovereignty, being in control. And it doesn't really want independent people there saying, no, that's not exactly what's happening. Something else is happening.

  • William Brangham:

    We also don't really know the true mortality rate of this virus, right? We haven't — we know the official number of deaths.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    We know the official number of cases.

    But without those being truly accurate, we can't really know.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    We don't know.

    I mean, my feeling is and my gut is, is that the case numbers are way underestimated, that there are many, many more cases. But the death rate is probably about right, because there's so many people that we don't know that have the virus, and we're not seeing a whole lot of deaths.

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take it really seriously. Flu has approximately the same death rate as the coronavirus. But imagine if we had the same number of cases in the world every year with the coronavirus.

  • William Brangham:

    Huge death toll.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    We would see a huge death toll.

    And we don't want circulating novel viruses, in addition to the flu, absolutely. We need to try to get this under control.

  • William Brangham:

    For American viewers who might be watching this news and being nervous, maybe potentially terrified, what would you say to them?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    I would say to them, you know, take it seriously, but just remain calm.

    The risk to the American public is very, very low. The U.S. CDC is, beyond doubt, the best in the world. If it were to happen here, in any number of — if you had escalating cases, I have very high confidence that CDC would be able to, you know, isolate cases, quarantine those who were actually exposed, and bring it under containment very, very rapidly.

  • William Brangham:

    Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown, thank you so much.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Thanks. Appreciate it.

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