Date
26 February 2020
Workers wearing masks walk outside their dormitory at an electronics manufacturing factory in Shanghai on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters
Workers wearing masks walk outside their dormitory at an electronics manufacturing factory in Shanghai on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

WHO says outbreak could ‘go in any direction’ as new cases drop

China 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 World Health Organization officials warned it could still “go in any direction”.

The 2,015 new confirmed cases took China’s total to 44,653 as of Wednesday. That was the lowest daily rise since Jan. 30 and came a day after epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said the outbreak should peak in China this month before subsiding.

His comments helped soothe public fears as global stocks surged to record highs on hopes of an end to the disruption in the world’s second-largest economy.

In central Hubei province, however, the number of deaths rose by 242 to 1,310 as of Wednesday, the province’s health commission said on its website on Thursday.

A further 14,840 cases had been detected in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, taking the total in the province to 48,206.

The commission said that it had begun including cases diagnosed through new clinical methods from Thursday.

Results from Chinese trials testing a combination of antiviral drugs used to treat HIV against the new coronavirus are due in weeks, bringing hope that experts can find an effective treatment.

But the WHO has likened the epidemic’s threat to terrorism and the UN agency’s chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the 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.

China’s latest figures also showed the number of deaths on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday, though doubts have been aired on social media about how reliable the numbers are.

After a two-day WHO meeting in Geneva on research and innovation into measures to tackle the new viral outbreak, Tedros welcomed the energy and enthusiasm of participating scientists.

He 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”.

Quarantined cruises

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.”

Officials ‘dropping the ball’

China’s state news agency Xinhua called the epidemic a “battle that has no gunpowder smoke” and chided some officials for “dropping the ball.”

The outbreak is suspected to have originated in a market illegally trading wildlife in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan in December.

The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown.

Moves by Washington and other countries to curb visitors from China have offended Beijing, which says they are an over-reaction.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has also reared on social media. 

A Xinhua commentary chided some Western media for “racist reporting” on the coronavirus and ignoring “the unswerving efforts and huge sacrifice China and its people have made”.

With companies laying off workers and supply chains from the car industry to smartphones disrupted, China’s economy is taking a big hit. ANZ Bank said first-quarter growth may slow to between 3.2 percent and 4.0 percent, down from a projection of 5.0 percent.

The latest big event to be canceled was the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, originally set for Shanghai on April 19. Reuters

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