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Back To The Beginning Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On New Year's Eve one year ago today, officials at the World Health Organization first learned about a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. The cause, of course, would turn out to be the coronavirus that has now killed more than 1.8 million people across the planet. As NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports, it took many more weeks for officials to fully grasp the threat.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The first inklings of the brewing pandemic came almost as a whisper. It was December 31 of 2019. WHO officials say staff in their China country office noticed a press release from Wuhan's Health Commission, mentioning a viral pneumonia circulating there. Health officials in Hong Kong, who had their own sources in China, were also pressing the WHO to investigate. Ten days later, Chinese officials informed the WHO of some grim findings - the pneumonia cases were caused by a new type of coronavirus, the same family of pathogen that had sparked previous outbreaks of new deadly diseases such as SARS and MERS. Still, in those early weeks, China had only reported several dozen people infected. And at the WHO's first press conference on the new virus on January 14, WHO experts such as Maria Van Kerkhove were still sounding a reassuring note.

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MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: This is not unexpected. This is something that the global community is preparing for. And all of the systems are in place, you know, to activate our plans and to utilize the materials that we developed for SARS, for MERS, and adapt them for the current situation.

AIZENMAN: What officials didn't know at the time was just how far the virus had already spread beyond China - to Korea, Iran, Italy. By February 25, only 14 cases had been identified in the United States. But at a press conference, a top official of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nancy Messonnier had this stark warning for Americans.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.

AIZENMAN: Now the U.S. ranks highest in the world when it comes to both its total reported case count of 19.7 million infected and more than 342,000 lives lost. Other hard-hit nations include Brazil with more than 194,000 deaths, India with 148,000, Mexico with 124,000 and Italy and the United Kingdom with more than 70,000 deaths each. In a video message to mark the coming new year, the WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said too many of these deaths were avoidable.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We have seen how divisions in politics and communities feed the virus and foment the crisis.

AIZENMAN: And he urged the world to do more to ensure people in poor- and middle-income countries have equal access to coronavirus vaccines. Going into 2021, said Tedros, the world has a choice - does it learn the lessons of the past year?

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TEDROS: Or do we walk the last miles of this crisis together, helping each other along the way?

AIZENMAN: The choice, he added, is easy.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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