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With new outbreaks of COVID-19, are we on the ‘precipice’ of a pandemic?

Will novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, morph into a global pandemic? Health officials worldwide are concerned about incidents of human-to-human transmission of the illness, although it continues to have a relatively low death rate. Amna Nawaz reports and Georgetown University’s Dr. Lawrence Gostin, who has advised the World Health Organization on pandemic preparedness, joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The virus that quarantined whole cities in China has now spread to new countries, and fears are growing.

    Wall Street cratered today, as major indexes plunged more than 3 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average lost over 1,000 points to close at 27,960. The Nasdaq fell 355 points. And the S&P 500 dropped 111.

    All of this amid encouraging signs inside China.

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some factories across Shanghai were back in business Monday, as cases outside the epicenter of China's coronavirus outbreak fell to the lowest number in a month.

    World Health Organization officials say the number of infected people in China has now peaked and leveled off. But beyond China's borders, the virus, and concerns over its spread have picked up momentum.

    There are now confirmed cases in at least 32 countries. But the new cases and deaths in South Korea and Italy raised new alarms today. Over the weekend, shops across South Korea closed their doors and workers disinfected sidewalks. and today, the country announced more than 800 confirmed coronavirus cases.

    Timothy Martin is the South Korea bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

  • Timothy Martin:

    There aren't enough doctors, nurses, investigators to follow up on individual confirmed cases, to let others who might be affected know that they were exposed. We have even heard of hospital staffs who quit because their families were pressuring them to do so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    South Korea took additional measures to curb the virus' spread today, closing its parliament building and the surrounding area.

    But Martin says South Korea is also using high-tech tools to deal with the outbreak.

  • Timothy Martin:

    South Koreans are highly connected, highly updated about each coronavirus case. You can travel through a region that an infected patient had been recently, and you will get a text message saying, be on alert. There was an infected case, you know, that might have been in the vicinity or even in some cases been at this restaurant.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Italy, meanwhile, recorded its sixth coronavirus death over the weekend, making it Europe's hardest-hit country.

    On the highways to Milan, barely any signs of life. Police check the few cars that pass through. Only authorized personnel can pass. Cities across the country are on lockdown.

    Sabina Castelfranco is a television news producer based in Italy.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    Students who cannot go to school at the moment because schools have been closed, universities have been closed, are wondering when they can sit their exams. Many of them were having exams this week. And they have all been canceled.

    The Italian prime minister has said that the towns will remain in lockdown for whatever time is needed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Across several borders, in Iran, the virus has killed at least 12 people. On the streets of Tehran, Iranians wear face masks to prevent the spread of the virus, and officials sanitize public transportation.

    but today, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom said the virus had not yet reached pandemic levels.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    The sudden increase in new cases is certainly very concerning.

    I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear. Using the word pandemic now doesn't fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear. This is not the time to focus on what word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today or save a single life today. This is a time for all countries, communities, families, and individuals to focus on preparing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's zero in some of the emerging concerns over the spread of COVID-19 outside of China.

    Lawrence Gostin is a professor of medicine at Georgetown University, where he heads the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. He's also advised the World Health Organization on pandemic preparedness and served on two global commissions assessing the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

    Professor Gostin, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Thank you for having me, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what do these new outbreaks, South Korea, Italy, Iran, tell us?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    I mean, one of the touchstones that we have all been looking for is whether or not you are going to have mini-epidemics that are sustained in the community. Outside of China, that is beginning to happen.

    So I think many of us feel that we are on the precipice of something very new, where we might see quite considerable spread. And we probably are having silent community transmissions in many countries. We're just not picking it up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there are a couple things in that answer that I want to pick up on.

    When you said concerning the spread is happening, how is it spreading?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Well, it's basically it's spreading human to human.

    I mean, initially, somebody was in contact with somebody from China. So, for example, in Iran, there's a lot of interchange between Iran and China. So, there was a case. They caught the virus. And then they have been silently transmitting it in the community.

    By the time you pick it up, it's already spread quite widely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So when you say silently transmitting, what does that refer to?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    It refers to the fact that we they're not detectable.

    What actually makes this so tricky is, is that it's got a low death rate, but people can transmit when they're asymptomatic. They might just have mild symptoms. People don't realize they have got the coronavirus.

    But it's spreading a lot. I mean, another thing of deep concern is the fact that we're seeing rapid spread in congregate settings, prisons, hospitals, churches. So, anywhere that people gather, you might have a very large outbreak.

    And that's certainly what's happened in Korea and in a number of other places.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we're seeing how China has handled this, where it's been for a number of weeks.

    What's your assessment of how these other countries, like Iran, like South Korea, which we just heard a little bit, how they are capable of handling it?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Well, South Korea, it is an enigma because it's got one of the best health systems in the world, but it actually didn't handle MERS. There was a big outbreak of MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    And now they really don't seem to be handling this well. They didn't pick it up early. It spread quite widely, and there are runs on hospitals, a lot of the worried well, and hospitals can't cope.

    And so that's not good. And we don't really know what's going on in Iran. But imagine this. It's foreseeable that it could leave Iran and go to, say, Syria, or Afghanistan. And once it got into a country that had a fragile state, a weak health system, that would really be a game-changer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because the difficulty of providing medical…

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    It would be virtually impossible.

    And you have refugee camps, mass migrations around the world. And so we need to take this seriously. But the good news is, it has a relatively low fatality rate. And in the United States, I don't think we should panic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I wanted to ask about that, finally.

    What is our capacity here in the United States to keep it from spreading any more than it has already?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Well, I think the U.S. CDC and state and local health departments are the best in the world. They're very, very well-equipped.

    I do foresee some problems, though, if we have sustained community transmission in the U.S. And the CDC said that that's a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, at some point. You're going to start to see a run on hospitals and clinics, the worried well, as well as the actual illness.

    And so we're going to need a lot more capacity. I'd really hope that Congress will allocate an emergency allocation for this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, by community transmission, you mean?

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    I mean that it's happening it's not travel-related case, and it's just human-to-human transmission. It's here. It's not in China. And we're communicating it within our neighborhoods.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what we are all watching for in every country.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Lawrence Gostin, thank you very much.

  • Lawrence Gostin:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We appreciate it.

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