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Why ‘sustained transmission’ of novel coronavirus is what would concern U.S. officials

This week has seen the rapid spread of novel coronavirus both within China and internationally to at least 14 other countries. On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared it a global public health emergency. As the U.S. records its first confirmed person-to-person transmission, William Brangham talks to Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, we return to the latest on the coronavirus outbreak.

    William Brangham has a closer look at today's developments.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    We have seen this past week the rapid spread of this virus within China, and its expansion now to at least 14 other nations.

    As we reported before, the World Health Organization has declared this a global health emergency. And we have now seen the first confirmed person-to-person transmission here in the U.S.

    For a closer look at what this all means, we turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.

    Dr. Fauci, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, we have seen this first case. This apparently is a 60-something-year-old woman who went to China, got the virus, came home, and apparently infected her husband once she was back here.

    We know how viruses operate, especially among people who are living together. On some level, this is to be expected. For people who are seeing this news, though, what would you say to them for their alarm and their concern about this?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You know, I think you just said it. This is something to be expected.

    When you have someone who is in very close contact with another individual that is infected, it is not surprising that there's transmission.

    The thing that would be of concern and that we're watching very carefully is what you call sustained transmission, from one person to another to another to another.

    The system here right now is that that individual who was just recently infected from a person who actually was infected in China, came here, and then infected a close partner, that that individual is now under isolation, and the contacts with whom that person came into, those individuals are now being traced.

    So the public health system is now on top of that. What the concern globally is the rapid sustained person-to-person-to-person transmission, which is going on right now, certainly to a great degree in China.

    And the reason the WHO declared this a public health emergency of international concern is because, in other countries outside of China, we're starting to see that sustained transmission from person to person to person. That's the thing we need to be concerned about.

    But, right now, the risk in the United States is still low. But with the same breath I say that, I say we are taking this very, very seriously as public health officials and scientists.

  • William Brangham:

    In your press conference earlier this week, you kept stressing the need for more information, for more data, for more samples to come out of China.

    Are you getting the cooperation and the information and the sharing you need from Chinese officials to best do your job?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You know, the answer is yes, but I think we can do better.

    If you compare the transparency during the SARS outbreak in 2002, everyone realized that they were egregiously non-transparent. And that delayed things for a long time.

    That's different now. They really are being open. But what we would like to see is the actual data and the patterns of disease that are going on there ourselves, because what happens there will inform us better as to what our policies will be here.

    So it looks like we're getting in that direction. The WHO is getting a group that is going to be put together to go there, hopefully including us, that would actually take a firsthand on-the-ground look at the data.

  • William Brangham:

    There is a fair amount of modeling coming out of Hong Kong and other parts of the world looking at the current spread and indicating that this may turn into a real global pandemic.

    Do you believe that that's true, or do you still think it's too early to make that call?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    No, I think you have to be realistic and say, it is possible that it could turn into a global pandemic.

    And that's the reason why we're doing everything we can to prevent that. I think to deny the possibility would be unrealistic. And that's the reason why we're preparing for the worst.

    Whether it's going to happen, we have no way of predicting what the odds of that are. The Chinese are doing rather dramatic things to try and contain that within their own country.

    The idea of locking down 50 million people to prevent them from going in and out of certain areas is a very, very dramatic way to try and contain that. What we're doing here is the typical, classical public health measures, trying the keep people who are infected out of the country, and then, if someone does get in, to isolate them and to prevent them from infecting others.

    Hopefully, those public health measures will work. But we still need to prepare for the worst. And we know we are taking this. And the public, the general public of the United States and the world should know that we are taking this very, very seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    In just the short bit of time we have left, I imagine that this has got to be difficult for you, dealing with these fears about a handful of virus cases here in the U.S., when we have another virus, the influenza virus, that has already sickened millions of Americans, that's taken 8,000 people's lives here in this country alone.

    How do you help Americans balance those concerns and risks, over the fear of a virus coming here vs. the one we already have?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I think to — I mean, we have been through this many times in so many other situations.

    The fear of the unknown and what might happen almost always supersedes the concern of something that actually is happening and causing a lot of damage.

    And you're absolutely correct. We are in the middle of a flu season, an we have more disease and death from flu than even — than some countries even have with this outbreak.

    So the issue is, we should concentrate on protecting ourselves from influenza, which we know its pattern, at the same time as we prepare for something that we're not familiar with, because it's a brand-new infection. It's a balance.

  • William Brangham:

    Anthony Fauci, thank you, as always.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Good to be with you.

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