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News Brief: Coronavirus Fallout, Democratic Debate, Trump's India Trip

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Markets are opening this morning after the Dow fell over a thousand points yesterday over concerns about the coronavirus.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. And the Trump administration has requested billions of dollars in supplemental funding to fight the virus. Other countries are also taking additional measures to stop the spread. The World Health Organization says the virus is not a pandemic yet, which basically means it's still possible these outbreaks can be contained.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR science correspondent Richard Harris to talk us through this. Good morning, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this disease, we should say, has certainly spread in Asia. It's gotten to North America, Europe, the Middle East. I mean, it sounds global. But why is the WHO not saying this is a pandemic at this point?

HARRIS: Well, the term pandemic isn't simply that a disease is spreading around the world as the name implies. The WHO also thinks that how severe it is counts, and how big an impact it has is also part of their equation. As the WHO director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained yesterday, the diseases needs to have significant impact on at least two continents for him to consider it a pandemic. And he's also really mindful of the power of a label.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: 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.

HARRIS: He says it is entirely possible, of course, that this will become a pandemic. But by his definition, he says, we're not there yet.

GREENE: OK. So he's saying, let's not focus on what word we use. Does wording not make a difference, or is it important somehow?

HARRIS: Well, it does make a difference, but it's a psychological difference. The WHO, in fact, has already declared that COVID-19 - what they call this disease - is a public health emergency of international concern. That's their technical term. It means it's a step that they take when - in order to marshal international action. In fact, that has done that. That declaration has brought in hundreds of millions of additional dollars, and it has stirred action around the world.

Honestly, it's journalists who keep asking Tedros whether we should be calling this thing a pandemic. And he's been circumspect. He really doesn't want to create a panic.

GREENE: Well, I mean, just to put this all in context, when has this term pandemic been applied in the past?

HARRIS: It has been applied for major influenza pandemics - outbreaks, including two in the previous century and one around 2009, which swept the globe and killed something like half a million people. It wasn't the worst possible pandemic, but it was a nasty flu season, for sure. Dr. Michael Ryan at the WHO said health officials know a lot about the flu, though, in comparison with the new coronavirus.

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MICHAEL RYAN: Pandemics of influenza can be sometimes called a lot earlier because we know - we've had previous pandemics. And we know with influenza that when there's highly efficient community transmission, as we see with seasonal flu, that the disease does spread around the world. And it has proven that time and time again. So it's much easier to say a pandemic will occur in a influenza situation.

GREENE: Richard, let's just talk about the response so far to this disease. I mean, the response has been restricting the movement of people, tracking who people come in contact with, quarantining some people, monitoring them. Is that strategy seen as something that's working? Do we expect it to change if this gets worse?

HARRIS: Well, yes. I think that the strategy would change. If the disease spreads far enough in the community, at some point it really becomes impractical to try to track down every single individual who might have been exposed. It's like - imagine trying to do that for the flu.

GREENE: Yeah.

HARRIS: Dr. Ryan says WHO does not support the idea of travel restrictions either. Again, think of the flu. We don't shut down airlines for the flu season in this country or around the world.

GREENE: Right.

HARRIS: Yeah. And in fact, they do very little to slow an outbreak. Countries like to do them. They have a good psychological impact for them, but they don't do much to slow an outbreak. And the WHO's concerned that it will actually slow the transit of needed medical supplies. So that's an issue. But officials have raised some other aggressive issues that China has not taken, such as closing schools and telling people to avoid large gatherings. Things like - measures like that still do make a lot of sense.

GREENE: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks as always.

HARRIS: It's my pleasure.

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GREENE: All right. Time for another debate - the Democratic candidates for president will be meeting onstage tonight in South Carolina.

KING: Yeah. And one of the big questions is whether and how they will go after the front-runner Bernie Sanders. South Carolina's primary is on Saturday.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR political reporter Juana Summers, who is in Charleston ahead of the debate. Hi, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So front-runner Bernie Sanders, he gets a big victory in Nevada. Everyone is expecting him to come under attack tonight. It sounds like we're getting a preview of that already in some of these ads that have come out.

SUMMERS: You're right. We are. They have really started mounting. One of the most stark ones come from Joe Biden's campaign. The former vice president's campaign is airing this new digital ad in South Carolina. In the ad (inaudible) Bernie Sanders of trying to undermine President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign by threatening a primary challenge to him.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: When it comes to building on President Obama's legacy, Bernie Sanders just can't be trusted.

GREENE: Wow. That's blunt.

SUMMERS: It's really blunt. And it's important to note, Sanders' campaign has denied the idea that the senator had any designs on mounting a primary challenge to Obama. But here in South Carolina, a state with a heavily black electorate, this is a really charged message. I also got another preview of some of the attacks that might come tonight at a dinner last night for the South Carolina Democratic Party. Two different Democrats kind of offered up a template. Pete Buttigieg spoke after Sanders, and he drew a direct contrast, saying that some of Sanders' plans were unrealistic and that he could potentially be a drag on down-ticket Democratic candidates.

And Tom Steyer, who has been in the state more than any other candidates, is making an economic argument against Sanders, who is a self-described democratic socialist. And he argues that Sanders' politics and policies are bad for working-class Americans. There's also one big question, and it's around Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She's, of course, been a frequent ally of Bernie Sanders. And in that last debate, she launched a number of forceful attacks against a variety of candidates. But that's not something she's done with Bernie Sanders yet. Now that he's picked up another victory, we're curious to see if that changes.

GREENE: Do we get the sense that Sanders is ready for attacks like this? I mean, how's he been responding so far?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so it's interesting. He's really been focused on capitalizing on the momentum he's built and showing that he can win. He's even pouring more resources here into South Carolina, a state that did not go well for him in 2016 but where he's rising in the polls now. He's also been highlighting some favorable polling numbers against President Trump.

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BERNIE SANDERS: I know you're hearing on TV a lot, Bernie can't win. Don't believe everything you hear on TV.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Truth is that on most - virtually all of the national polls, we are defeating Donald Trump.

SUMMERS: Now, that is clearly an attempt to reassure Democrats about Bernie Sanders' electability if he does win the nomination.

GREENE: Well - and I mean, heading to South Carolina now, we should talk about Vice President Joe Biden. I mean, this is a very important state for him. I mean, how hard has his campaign been working there?

SUMMERS: They're working really hard. This is close to a must-win for him. More than half of the Democratic electorate is black here. That's one of his strongest bases of support. They are putting a lot of effort here and hoping that he might get a boost from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who is expected to announce his endorsement tomorrow morning.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Juana Summers in Charleston, S.C., ahead of tonight's debate. Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. President Trump is wrapping up a two-day visit to India.

KING: That's right. Yesterday, he spoke to a huge crowd - more than 100,000 people - at a "Namaste, Trump" rally in the Indian Prime Minister's home state of Gujarat.

GREENE: And today the two leaders meet again in New Delhi. And NPR's Lauren Frayer is there. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So I mean, we talk a lot about visits like this as to whether they are largely symbolic or whether anything is really accomplished. Is there anything to point to in terms of progress or accomplishments between these two leaders?

FRAYER: Well, there was speculation about a trade deal this week. President Trump cited tremendous advances toward that but no deal while he's here. And instead, he said India signed a very different deal to buy more than $3 billion of U.S. military equipment, including helicopters. But what was really interesting was something else Trump said when he and Prime Minister Modi made statements to the press today. Listen to this.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our two countries have always been united by shared traditions of democracy and constitutions that protect freedom, individual rights and the rule of law.

FRAYER: And let me tell you why it's significant that Trump mentioned India's constitution. Prime Minister Modi has been facing nationwide protests over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim refugees. Protesters say it violates the secular values that are enshrined in India's constitution, and it's an allegation that has long dogged Modi. He's a Hindu nationalist. He believes India should be a Hindu nation with special rights for its 80% Hindu majority, and that makes minorities nervous. And several people were killed in clashes over this yesterday in Delhi, mere hours before Trump landed here.

GREENE: So what is the significance, if we step back, of seeing these two leaders onstage together?

FRAYER: So much has been made of this sort of bromance between Trump and Modi. They held hands onstage at a stadium rally yesterday in Modi's home state. There was "Howdy, Modi" rally last year in Houston. Here, it was "Namaste, Trump" this week. There's a lot of pageantry. But they're both nationalists who have been accused of discriminating against minorities. Modi was actually accused of inciting violence against Muslims in the early 2000s in his home state, exactly where that rally was yesterday, so much so that the U.S. actually denied him a visa to visit the U.S. for years until just before he became prime minister in 2014.

The violence yesterday in Delhi and these massive protests that I mentioned over the citizenship law may be why Modi and Trump didn't take a single question today. Trump will do a solo presser with the media later today, but Modi is really infamous for never - hardly ever taking open questions from the media. Previously, any criticism of press freedom or minority rights has been kind of behind closed doors. India's a democracy. It's increasingly important to the U.S.

GREENE: In what way - how is India important?

FRAYER: Strategic importance. The U.S. is increasingly looking to India as a buffer to China's growing power in the Indo-Pacific. And India shares that concern. It's got a 2,000-mile border with China.

GREENE: NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting on this visit of President Trump to India, which is wrapping up.

Lauren, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.

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