The Chinese province at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in the death toll on Thursday, as global health experts warned the epidemic could get far worse before it is brought under control.
Health officials in Hubei province said 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December, and bringing the total number of deaths in the province to 1,310. The previous record rise in the toll was 103 on Feb. 10.
The grim new tally came a day after China had reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by Beijing’s senior medical adviser for the outbreak there to end by April.
But the 2,015 new confirmed cases reported in mainland China on Wednesday was dwarfed by the 14,840 new cases reported in Hubei alone on Thursday, when provincial officials said they had adopted a new methodology for counting infections.
Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.
But it has begun using quicker computerized tomography (CT) scans, which reveal lung infections, to confirm virus cases, health officials said.
About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority in China.
The CT scans will help patients get treatment more quickly and improve chances of recovery, the Hubei health commission said.
The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, according to Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
“Presumably, there are deaths which occurred in people who did not have a lab diagnosis but did have a CT. It is important that these also be counted,” she told Reuters.
The new testing methodology is only being used in Hubei province, Chinese officials said.
Reports in state-run media said provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang had been sacked as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang had been removed as party chief in the provincial capital Wuhan.
The reports did not state a reason for the dismissals, but the two are the most high-profile Chinese officials to date to be removed from duty following the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan late last yet.
“Thank you Communist Party. It should have been done earlier,” Wuhan resident Wang You told Reuters.
Dozens of low-level health officials across the country have also lost their jobs for failing to contain the spread of the epidemic, which is believed to have emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally.
Asian stock markets wobbled and the safe-havens of the Japanese yen, gold and bonds rose after the Hubei numbers were reported.
Results from Chinese trials testing a combination of antiviral drugs used to treat HIV against the new coronavirus are due in weeks, but experts say a vaccine could still be months away.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned any apparent slowdown in the spread of the epidemic should be viewed with “extreme caution”.
“This outbreak could still go in any direction,” he told a briefing in Geneva.
Another expert said that while the coronavirus may be peaking in China, this was not the case elsewhere.
“It has spread to other places where it’s the beginning of the outbreak,” Dale Fisher, head of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the WHO, said in an interview in Singapore. “In Singapore, we are at the beginning.”
Singapore has 50 cases, including one found at its biggest bank, DBS, on Wednesday that caused an evacuation at the head office.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen other countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China – one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
Tedros said a WHO-led advance team that traveled to China this week had made good progress on the composition and scope of its work.
The head of the WHO’s emergency program, Dr. Mike Ryan, said it was too early “to predict the beginning, the middle or end of the epidemic”.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 175 of about 3,700 people on board having tested positive.
The ship’s operator, Carnival Corp., is among foreign companies taking a hit from the outbreak, with many flights suspended and businesses disrupted.
Planemaker Boeing said airlines were facing a fall in profits as the crisis reduces passenger demand and prolongs weakness in economically sensitive air freight.
Global ship deliveries have also been dented as yards in China, one of the biggest shipbuilders, struggle to get fully back to work.
There was a happy ending in sight for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines had refused to let dock over fears one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew might have the virus.
Cambodia agreed to let it land, the Holland America Line said.
“This is an example of international solidarity we have been consistently calling for,” WHO chief Tedros said. “Outbreaks can bring out the best and the worst in people.”
The outbreak is suspected to have originated in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan in December. The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown, and other major Chinese cities are facing severe travel restrictions.
The latest big event to be canceled, moved or postponed was the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, originally set for Shanghai on April 19. Reuters
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(Updated; last posted at 9:25 a.m.)