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Coronavirus Declared A Global Health Emergency By World Health Organization

NOEL KING, HOST:

One by one, China's neighbors are closing their borders and restricting travel in an effort to stop the coronavirus from spreading. Mongolia today closed its borders with China and banned travel to and from China. Singapore has banned all Chinese nationals from entering that country. And the U.S. and Japan are both recommending that their citizens don't travel to China. There are now around 10,000 cases of the virus, and that's in just two months. Now, by way of comparison, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, it took eight months to hit 8,000 cases. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Hong Kong following all of this. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So the World Health Organization yesterday declared this a global health emergency. What'll that mean, exactly?

BEAUBIEN: It means that the World Health Organization is saying this is really significant. They're basically putting their highest, you know, stamp on the level of this emergency, and it is sort of a way for other nations to look at it and say, look, if they're saying that, we should be doing more as well. It probably is what allowed the United States to go forward with putting this level four do-not-travel warning in place that just came out. You know, this is up there - this puts China on the same level as Iraq, Syria, Somalia as places that United States citizens should avoid, so this is a very severe warning to not travel there.

And, you know, air traffic was already getting shut down into China. A lot of carriers were pulling out. You know, airlines are going have a hard time justifying leaving their crews overnight there if it's under a level four do-not-travel warning from the State Department. Universities aren't going to probably want to have their exchange programs - they're definitely not going to have their exchange students going there if this is the level of warning that is in place from the State Department and the WHO. So yeah, it's a big deal.

KING: It's a big deal. We've been watching this for a couple of weeks. We've seen the numbers go up - 2,000 cases, 4,000 cases and now 10,000 cases. What are the projections for getting this outbreak under control?

BEAUBIEN: So you know, I've been talking to researchers here who are trying to analyze this - people who worked on the SARS outbreak, people who look at coronaviruses - and they're basically saying that this outbreak is just in its early stages, and they expect it to get a lot worse before it gets better. Chinese officials seemed to also feel that way. They're actually building two brand-new hospitals right now in Wuhan to treat patients from this outbreak. So clearly, they think this is going to be going on for a while.

You know, in addition to those confirmed cases, China's got 15,000 suspect cases that it's dealing with. And there's almost a hundred thousand people in China who are being monitored for potential exposure. So there's still a lot of potential cases that could be coming out. And despite these dramatic measures that China is putting in place to stop people from moving around, Britain just announced a couple of cases. Italy announced their first case, Cambodia. We've got cases, you know, here in the United States. So it is clear that the concern from researchers is there that this definitely has the potential to get bigger, and it looks like it's going to.

KING: OK. You're in Hong Kong at the moment, which has only had about a dozen cases, but they are right there next to mainland China. So what are people there saying?

BEAUBIEN: So, you know, people here are scared. There is a lot of concern about this outbreak. There is a major shortage of face masks at the moment. Everyone on the street is wearing face masks, but there's none available in the shops, and whenever a pharmacy gets some, lines form out the door, around the block. And people will wait until, you know, they can get some. Hong Kong was devastated by SARS 17 years ago.

KING: Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: Three hundred people died here in that outbreak. And people are very worried that they could be on the verge of another devastating outbreak like that, you know, coming down the pike.

KING: Yeah, that explains a lot of the anxiety. NPR's Jason Beaubien in Hong Kong. Thank you so much, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.