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With growing coronavirus outbreak, is China’s massive quarantine the right response?

China is still struggling to contain its growing coronavirus outbreak, which has now killed at least 41 and infected 900 more. The virus has spread to seven countries, with a second case confirmed in the U.S. Hospitals in the Chinese city of Wuhan are overflowing, and officials have ordered a travel ban affecting 35 million residents. William Brangham reports on concerns over what lies ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Chinese government is still struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak that's killed at least 26 people and infected over 900 more.

    Officials today expanded a travel ban to block the movements of tens of millions in Central China. New cases have now appeared in Europe and in six other countries, and a second U.S. case was confirmed today.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    Hospitals in the city of Wuhan, China, the center of this outbreak, are jammed to capacity.

    Medical teams are working overtime, dealing with the rush of people worried they're infected with this new coronavirus. Hospitals here have issued urgent pleas for additional help and supplies.

    With the official death toll doubling overnight, and hundreds of new cases emerging, Chinese officials have now expanded their travel ban beyond the 11 million in Wuhan into 12 surrounding towns. That's about 35 million people, roughly the population of Canada, on semi-lockdown.

  • Thomas Bollyky:

    Restricting train and air travel.

  • William Brangham:

    Thomas Bollyky is the director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "Plagues and the Paradox of Progress."

  • Thomas Bollyky:

    The history of these kinds of travel bans isn't positive. Generally speaking, these travel bans are seen as not that effective.

    What they often do is cause people not to report their illness, and try to circumvent government and public health officials. And that makes it more likely that the disease will spread.

  • William Brangham:

    Chinese state media released this video of a massive hospital being built, claiming it'll be up and running in a stunning six days' time.

    While Chinese health officials have shared genetic and diagnostic information about this virus, the country's response to the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, when the true scale of the outbreak was hidden for months, leads some to worry that Chinese officials still aren't being fully transparent today.

  • Howard Markel:

    Concealment is an essential aspect of epidemics of time immemorial.

  • William Brangham:

    Howard Markel is a medical historian and author of, among other books, "Quarantine" and "When Germs Travel."

  • Howard Markel:

    Most places don't like to admit they have a raging infection, largely because they fear a quarantine that would close their port, would close their commerce, would — would close the flow of money.

    And, you know, the SARS epidemic, which wasn't even a major epidemic, cost the world economy at least $40 billion. So, we're talking about real dollars and cents.

  • William Brangham:

    The initial outbreak in China has now spread to at least six other countries, including France and the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control confirmed a second U.S. case today, a Chicago woman in her 60s who'd recently traveled to Wuhan. A man in his 30s in Washington state is also infected, but now stable.

    The CDC says they are investigating at least 63 others in 22 states. The five U.S. airports that are receiving people from affected regions in China are now screening passengers for fevers. The two current U.S. cases arrived before screenings were in place.

    As China continues to grapple with this outbreak, major questions still need answering: Just how contagious is this virus, and how lethal?

    Howard Markel says, until those questions are answered, banning travel for millions might be counterproductive to stop a virus that spreads, but perhaps isn't that deadly.

  • Howard Markel:

    I think the most concerning thing is this massive quarantine of over 35 million people, the largest quarantine ever, ever undertaken in human history.

    So, you wouldn't use the atomic bomb of public health tools, the quarantine, in the manner that China has done, for something that may be quite contagious, that might spread, but doesn't cause death.

  • William Brangham:

    Tom Bollyky says, this novel virus in China is not yet cause for alarm for Americans. There are plenty of other viruses right here to worry about.

  • Thomas Bollyky:

    We're in the midst of a terrible flu season. There is a vaccine that people can actually do something about, if you want.

    If viewers wanted to be nervous or scared at home about how to protect themselves from diseases, this new novel virus is still pretty far down the list in terms of what they should be doing something about.

  • William Brangham:

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

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