RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's what we know - the new coronavirus is spreading. South Korea has several hundred new cases. In Iran, schools are closed, and officials reported 12 related deaths. And in Italy, there were just a handful of cases last week; there are now more than 200. What we don't know is why the virus is spreading or exactly how. And the head of the World Health Organization says the window of opportunity to contain it is narrowing.
We're going to check in with NPR correspondents in all three of the regions I just mentioned. And we'll start in South Korea with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, China and South Korea are obviously neighbors, but it took a long time for cases to really explode in South Korea. Why? Why the increase in the past week?
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, it's because the first cases came in from China, but then they started to go local. Transmission took off within the country, and now every major city and province in the country has it, and their roughly 833 cases are second only to China. An epidemiologist I spoke to today said they're in an acceleration phase, and that's why we saw cases doubling every day for several days last week. A good reason, though - on the positive side - is that South Korea has very good ability to test a lot of people quickly. They've tested more than 28,000 suspected cases; 19,000 of those have come up negative. And that still leaves 8,700 pending.
MARTIN: How are people responding? I mean, when you talk to people, are they afraid?
KUHN: Well, this rapid acceleration in case numbers has produced a lot of psychological impact.
KUHN: People are pretty worried about it. They also have things they want their government to do. One is they want them to tighten up the ban on travelers from China. Currently, only people from the epicenter, Wuhan, are banned. And they want this church, which is - accounts for more than half of the cases in South Korea, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, disbanded.
MARTIN: Disbanded - because they just don't like the idea of large groups of people gathering?
KUHN: Well, they think that this group is spreading the disease, that they're secretive, that they're obstructing the efforts to contain it. So they want the government to go in and shut it down.
MARTIN: Huh. All right, Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. We appreciate it, Anthony. Thank you.
KUHN: You're welcome.
MARTIN: Now we move halfway around the world - to Italy. And we find NPR's Sylvia Poggioli there in Rome. Sylvia, just give us the lay of the land. What's going on there today?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, the spike was sudden and very sharp. Thursday, there were three cases - two Chinese tourists and an Italian who had been in Wuhan. And there were more than - and just now it's been announced there are more than 200 today. It's the largest number of any country outside of Asia. The majority are northern Italy, and all five people who've died were elderly. Now, the main cluster is south of Milan, where 10 towns with 50,000 residents are under total quarantine. Police checkpoints are sealing off the area. No one can get in or out.
And drastic measures have been taken in Milan, which is Italy's industrial and fashion capital and home to 3 million people. There's a weeklong shutdown for all public gatherings - schools, universities, bars, cafes, La Scala opera house, movie theaters and church masses. And there's been - there've been runs on supermarkets and reports that food supplies are dwindling. And in Venice, there's another outbreak. And there, the famed carnival, which is one of the city's...
POGGIOLI: ...Major annual tourist attractions, has been cut short.
MARTIN: Huh. So, I mean, South Korea, obviously, there's a proximity to China, where this originated. But Italy - I mean, what are authorities saying about how the coronavirus found its way there and then spread so fast?
POGGIOLI: Well, they're mystified. The scientists have not identified the so-called patient zero. They say the disease may have started in one hospital, where doctors were perhaps late in diagnosing the first case. He's a 38-year-old local resident with no connection to Asia. And the virus spread quickly to other patients and medical staff. The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has announced that everything will be done to help these people, the people in the lockdown areas, providing food and necessary supplies. But it's a huge organizational operation for a very weak government at this time, and Italy is on the verge of recession.
It's going to be a big challenge for the European Union, too. Austria temporarily halted train traffic with Italy last night. But the EU said it's not yet considering suspending the free travel zone, which is, you know, one of the main pillars of the Union. So this is the biggest crisis for Europe since 2015, when there was the migration crisis. And, you know, three weeks ago, Italy was the only EU country to officially suspend all air traffic to and from China, and that didn't keep the virus out. So it's not clear what the EU thinks they can do to keep the cross-border virus from spreading.
MARTIN: From spreading further. Sylvia Poggioli reporting in Rome. Thank you, Sylvia. And now we turn to NPR's Peter Kenyon. He has been reporting in Tehran, the capital of Iran. He happens to now be in Dubai. Peter, explain what the situation was in Iran when you were there. How serious is it?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Oh, quite serious. The death toll has stood at 12 as I left the country. I've seen a figure of 13 - not confirmed yet. The health ministry believes this virus is in the early stages of infecting people. They're predicting a rising arc in the near term going ahead from here. Dozens of cases have been reported. The number of cases is rising daily. It's been kind of crazy at Tehran pharmacies. I met one woman there just fuming, outraged about the lack of masks and gloves. Hope they show mercy to the people, they said.
But there are plenty of theories about what's going on. One person says the Americans might be behind it. They tried to punish China, and it backfired - all kinds of conspiracy theories. The government has pledged that it will make sure the pharmacies are well supplied. But that, as I just told you, is really a work in progress.
MARTIN: Right. So as we've seen in other countries, varying degrees of different lockdowns to try to contain the virus. Is that happening in Iran?
KENYON: Yes, very similar to what Sylvia just mentioned. All concerts have been canceled. Schools are closed, universities, religious seminaries - yes - and all kinds of large public events, they've been canceled. A lot of Iranians are telling me they're not at all confident of the government's ability to deal with this health issue, partly because of American sanctions on Iran but also because of Iran's track record in managing crises. And this as - it's a rumor-prone place, and we're hearing an awful lot about that now. And people, they just really feel like they don't know what's coming next, and they don't have confidence that the government knows what it's doing.
MARTIN: Right. So does Iran have any history of dealing with massive public health crises? I mean, you talk about these conspiracy theories. What are public health officials messaging?
KENYON: Well, it is a hugely difficult task for any country. And certainly, whether you want to, you know, put Iran down low on the list or not, it's going to be very difficult. And clearly, I don't think they have had to deal with something like this before, no.
MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Tehran. He has been reporting in Tehran. We actually find him in Dubai. We also heard from NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul and Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, all reporting about the spread of the coronavirus. NPR will continue bringing you the latest on the virus on air and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.