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What we know about China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak — and what we don’t

Chinese officials are racing to respond to a highly contagious pneumonia-like virus that has now killed at least 17 people, infected hundreds more and spread to several other countries. In an effort to contain the illness, the city of Wuhan has issued a partial quarantine and shut down public transportation. But the medical gravity of the virus remains unknown. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, Chinese officials are racing to contain a quickly spreading virus that has now killed at least 17 people, infected hundreds more, and spread to several other countries.

    William Brangham has this update on the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    In Wuhan, China, the city of 11 million people at the center of the outbreak, officials today announced the imminent closure of all public transit and advised residents not to leave the city.

    This comes just as celebrations of the Chinese lunar new year are to begin, where, normally, hundreds of millions of people travel from cities to the countryside.

    This outbreak of a new pneumonia-like coronavirus has now sickened hundreds in China, and spread to at least five other countries, along with one declared case in the U.S.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    I think it's anything but under control for now.

  • William Brangham:

    Yanzhong Huang is a public health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations and directs the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    There seems to be evidence suggesting that the virus is increasing its virulence and is spreading very rapidly in China, and also to other countries. So, we are actually in the initial stages of a major outbreak.

  • William Brangham:

    Airports in many countries are now using thermal imaging to check passengers for possible fevers, one of the symptoms of the virus.

    U.S. health officials said five U.S. airports are conducting similar screening, and plans are in place to route all inbound flights from the affected regions in China through those hubs.

    This passenger arrived in San Francisco from an affected area in China and is happy with the screenings.

  • Woman:

    I think they did a good job. I think it's necessary, because this is a big thing. This is about our health, about the community health.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to the travel restrictions, a partial quarantine is now in effect in parts of Wuhan.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    It's a very big city, and it's in Central China. So consider that sort of China's Chicago in terms of the location and also in terms of the importance in China.

  • William Brangham:

    This shuttered live animal market in Wuhan is one of the places where officials believe the virus first made the jump from animals to humans.

  • Tom Inglesby:

    If a virus moves from animal to human, but can't spread any further, than the risk of a larger outbreak is very low.

  • William Brangham:

    Tom Inglesby is the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

  • Tom Inglesby:

    We have seen that before in many different kinds of infectious diseases, where there is a jump, but then people don't transmit the illness further. But the concern is when a virus has the capability of spreading directly from person to person. Obviously, that requires different kinds of interventions to try to control that virus.

  • William Brangham:

    Chinese health officials confirmed this week that this virus is now spreading from person to person.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    If the virus is gaining the capacity for efficient human-to-human transmission, it means that all those interactions maximize the chances of the virus infecting human beings.

  • William Brangham:

    What makes this even more complicated is that the symptoms of a coronavirus infection are very similar to the flu.

    People who have the infection have high fevers, they have a cough, and they have trouble breathing. So far, the people who have died from these infections tend to be elderly who also had health complications.

    The Chinese government has faced sharp criticism for its slow reaction to previous outbreaks, including the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, where 800 people died and over 8,000 were sickened by a different coronavirus.

    This current outbreak is believed to have begun early last month, but health officials there didn't reveal it publicly for three weeks.

    While Tom Inglesby doesn't agree with all of China's moves, he's glad they're at least being more transparent now.

  • Tom Inglesby:

    Yesterday, the president of China strongly urged all those who were working on this outbreak to share information within China and to share it internationally and to share it with the World Health Organization. You didn't see that kind of political position back in 2002.

  • William Brangham:

    Public health officials say, we still just don't know how many cases are out there and how serious they are, to know if this is a mild coronavirus that won't take too many lives or something more virulent that could take a deeper toll.

  • Tom Inglesby:

    It's so new in the outbreak that we don't know whether we're closer to the former or the latter. And we're going to need a lot more information to decide that.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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