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Expert Says There Is Time To Prevent A U.S. Coronavirus Epidemic


Seven thousand seven hundred people have been infected with the coronavirus in just two months. But the World Health Organization says the number of people infected outside of China, where the virus originated, remains low. The question now is how to keep it from spreading. Dr. Luciana Borio is with me in studio. She worked for the National Security Council on biodefense. She's currently a vice president at In-Q-Tel, which is a nonprofit strategic investment firm that supports U.S. national security. Dr. Borio, thanks for joining us.

LUCIANA BORIO: It's great to be here.

KING: You write in The Wall Street Journal that this epidemic has features that make it difficult to control. What are those features?

BORIO: There's clear person-to-person transmission associated with this virus. It looks like it spreads through the air. We don't know how infectious it is. But it requires very specific infection control precautions to protect health care workers. And the presentation is very similar to any other upper respiratory infection.

KING: Including SARS, which was a big problem in 2002 and 2003, right?

BORIO: That's right. So in the absence of distinguishing features, today - how clinicians are detecting this - patients that might be infected because they present with symptoms and they have a risk factor, whether travel or contact with somebody who travel. But as more person-to-person spread continues and the epidemic grows, it'll be more difficult to make that linkage to a risk factor.

KING: OK. I see. Now, as we said, the number of cases outside of China remains low. The number of cases here in the U.S., we haven't heard of more than five or six, if I'm correct. What should the U.S. government be doing right now to contain this, to make sure that the number of cases stays low?

BORIO: The most important and effective way to control epidemics is to identify patients who are infected, exposed to the virus, and isolate them. We say you isolate the patient, you isolate the virus.


BORIO: Today, most of this testing - all of the testing, actually - has to go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And this takes a few days for the whole end-to-end process. And what's very important and very needed is diagnostic tests that are distributed at the point of care, or as close to the point of care as possible. Experience has shown that, as the numbers grow, it's very difficult for the CDC to keep up with the demands for testing.

KING: What does the CDC need? Does it need more resources, or does it need to go about things differently?

BORIO: So the CDC is doing everything it can right now to prepare the reagents, to work to validate their test, to distribute it to other public health labs. So this process of augmenting the capacity for testing is well underway. But the private sector really needs to step in because day-to-day in medical care systems, the private sector supplies most of the diagnostic tests. So we want this testing to be no different than what occurs on the day-to-day health care system.


BORIO: And the lag between testing and results is - you know, generates resource demands on hospitals because its patients are in isolation.

KING: So in this case, it sounds like you're saying - you have moved from the public sector to the private sector. You're saying the private sector needs to be involved here because it can get things done quickly and efficiently.

BORIO: Absolutely.

KING: OK. Dr. Luciana Borio, vice president at In-Q-Tel, thank you so much for coming in.

BORIO: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.