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New World Health Organization Data Confirms Around 80% Of Cases Are Mild


The World Health Organization says there are now more than 71,000 cases of coronavirus disease, aka COVID-19. Despite that alarming-sounding number, the organization says the spread seems to be slowing. Now, as more data comes out of China, experts say they're getting a better sense of the outbreak. And here to tell us more is NPR science reporter Maria Godoy. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: Beyond that top number of 71,000 cases, what did the WHO say about people who are coming down with the virus?

GODOY: Well, so there's new data out of China on more than 44,000 confirmed cases, which is the biggest dataset we've seen so far. But so far, it seems to be holding up what earlier research told us, which is that 80% of cases are mild. And that can mean anything from cold-like symptoms to that flu-like feeling of being hit by a truck. Then there are 15% of cases or so that are severe, which means pneumonia, shortness of breath that can land you in the hospital. And 5% of cases are critical, so these are patients coming down with multi-organ failure, respiratory failure or septic shock. Right now, the mortality - the fatality rate seems to be holding at about 2%, and that is less than we've seen with other coronaviruses that have popped up in recent decades, like SARS and MERS.

CORNISH: The headlines on this have been around the threat of its spread. What have you learned so far?

GODOY: Well, there have been no new countries reporting cases in the last 24 hours, and the vast majority of cases are still in China. In fact, there are about 800 cases outside of China, but more than half of those are on the Diamond Princess, that cruise ship that's docked outside Tokyo or near Tokyo - yeah.

CORNISH: Near Tokyo. And I know that some 300 American passengers were evacuated from that ship just in the last day or so. Do we know anything about them?

GODOY: Yeah. So planes carrying those evacuated passengers landed in Travis Air Force Base in California and at Lackland Base in Texas last night and this morning. Fourteen of the Americans on that - those flights actually tested positive for COVID-19 before they left Japan, but those test results came in as they were en route to the airport. They weren't showing any symptoms. Officials let them board the planes anyway, but they were isolated from other passengers. Now, Travis Air Force Base says anyone who shows symptoms or that is - tests positive for the disease will be isolated and cared for somewhere other than the base.

CORNISH: What are health officials saying to people who, as a result of all this, are actually nervous about taking a cruise that they booked or just traveling in general?

GODOY: You know, the WHO actually addressed those concerns today. Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO says it's really important to keep perspective on this epidemic. Here's what he said.


MIKE RYAN: There's no zero risk in the world for anything. Outside Hubei, this epidemic is affecting a very tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of people. So if we're going to disrupt every cruise ship in the world on the off chance that there might be some potential contact with some potential pathogen, then where do we stop?

GODOY: You know, Ryan says that any public health response has to balance the need to minimize known risks with a need to just keep functioning as a society.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, that international team of researchers who's been in China studying the virus with Chinese colleagues - what do we know about those efforts?

GODOY: Well, basically, they're there to figure out all the things we still don't know about this virus, and that is a lot, like how exactly it's transmitted or what the life cycle of the disease is. Researchers really still have a lot to get a hold on.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Maria Godoy. Thanks for your reporting.

GODOY: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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