AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There were more wild swings on Wall Street today after steep losses the previous two days. Investors have been struggling to understand the potential economic costs of the growing coronavirus outbreak. President Trump will try to quell those fears when he addresses the nation tonight. And now to discuss the health concerns and the political stakes of this virus, I'm joined by NPR Washington correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.
Hey to both of you.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: All right, I want to start with you, Franco. What would you say is at stake for the president on this particular issue?
ORDOÑEZ: A lot - you know, the president wants to show that his administration has this all under control. The reality is this has become very political very quickly. You know, he is staking his reelection largely on the strong economy. You know, this two-day plunge in the stock market shows that people are rattled by the virus. And if there is a downturn in the economy, that really will undermine his message. You know, he set up a task force of relevant Cabinet members and scientists a month ago. So this tonight, this showing will be a chance for him to show that he has the right experts in place and that they are handling the situation properly.
CHANG: Well, let's talk about handling the situation, Richard. I mean, earlier today, the president tweeted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing, quote, "a great job." He blamed the news media for making things seem worse than they are. Is that a fair assessment?
HARRIS: Well, the CDC has taken a lot of the right steps, from quarantining people who are at risk for spreading the virus and isolating the very few people in this country who have it. It's not been perfect. They are still struggling to scale up its testing program. I think what really happened this week is the CDC has started warning that this is inevitable that the virus will spread here. The CDC is doing this because they're trying to get the public to be aware that their lives may be disrupted. They better start thinking about this. And from a standpoint of public health, that's exactly the right message to send.
The reality is, though, it does create some anxiety. But, you know, that's where the facts are leading the scientists, and you know, that's what we saw reflected in the big sell-off on the stock market this week.
CHANG: Right. And speaking of that anxiety, Franco, the president was criticized last night during the Democratic debate for not having a White House official lead the response to the coronavirus. Are there any signs that Trump is going to be appointing a so-called coronavirus czar?
ORDOÑEZ: Not at this time, no. The idea was shot down pretty quickly by the White House and by the health secretary, Alex Azar, himself. He is actually the head of the task force right now. But, you know, this issue and this question does show how quickly the crisis has become a political football. You know, the White House really needs to strike a fine balance in how it communicates what it's doing. You know, it has to show that it's taking this seriously.
But at the same time, you don't want to stoke more fears, but you also don't want to paint some kind of rosy picture of the situation when it's really not. You know, and some of the criticism against the president is that his comments have minimized a very serious public health issue.
CHANG: I want to focus on the audience that the president's going to be addressing tonight. Richard, you know, we've heard it from you, we've heard it from outside health experts that what everyone's got to remember is that the flu kills far more people than the coronavirus. So what do you think? Are Americans overreacting?
HARRIS: Well, yes and no. I think public health officials have a sense of urgency that they've been conveying because they knew that they had just one chance to prevent this virus from becoming a permanent new disease, another flu if you will. And they know that strategy worked to snuff out the SARS epidemic, which was caused by a similar virus that arose in 2003. But, you know, it looks like, for this new coronavirus, that window of opportunity is closing fast, and it's probably going to close very shortly, if it hasn't already. So it looks like this is going to become another flu.
Flu does - is a nasty disease that sweeps the globe and kills a lot of people every year. This is a little bit deadlier, but fortunately, at this point, it's not as prevalent. So it's a reasonable comparison.
CHANG: That is NPR's Richard Harris and NPR's Franco Ordoñez.
Thanks to both of you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.