BEIJING (Reuters) – China reported on Wednesday its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since late January, lending weight to a prediction by its senior medical adviser that the outbreak could end by April.
Global markets took heart from the outlook but other international experts are alarmed at the spread of the flu-like virus, which has killed more than 1,100 people, all but two in mainland China, and said optimism could be premature.
China’s foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said the numbers of new cases were falling in some provinces, and forecast the epidemic would peak this month.
“I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April,” Zhong, an epidemiologist whose previous forecast of an earlier peak turned out to be premature, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Total infections in China have hit 44,653, say health officials, including 2,015 new confirmed cases on Tuesday. That was the lowest daily rise in new cases since Jan. 30.
The number of deaths on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday.
(GRAPHIC- Comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS: here)
But doubts have been aired on social media about how reliable the figures are, after the government last week amended guidelines on the classification of cases.
While Chinese officials said the situation was under control, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the epidemic posed a global threat potentially worse than terrorism.
The world must “wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one”, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that the first vaccine was 18 months away.
Asked about Zhong’s prediction, Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said: “I think it’s far too premature to say that.
“We’ve just got to watch the data very closely over the coming weeks before we make any predictions,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp, while praising China’s “Herculean efforts” to contain the virus.
Hundreds of cases have been reported in dozens of countries and territories around the world, including one death in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s port of Yokohama, with about 3,700 people on board. Japanese officials on Wednesday said another 39 people had tested positive for the virus, taking the total to 175.
One of the new cases was a quarantine officer.
Thailand said it was barring passengers from another cruise ship, MS Westerdam, from disembarking, the latest country to turn it away amid fears of the coronavirus, despite no confirmed infections on board.
‘BATTLE MUST BE WON’
Echoing the comparison with the fight against terrorism, China’s state news agency Xinhua said late on Tuesday the epidemic was a “battle that has no gunpowder smoke but must be won”.
The epidemic was a big test of China’s governance and capabilities and some officials were still “dropping the ball” in places where it was most severe, it said, adding: “This is a wake-up call.”
The government of Hubei, the central province at the outbreak’s epicenter, dismissed the provincial health commission’s Communist Party boss, state media said on Tuesday, amid mounting public anger over the crisis.
China’s censors had allowed criticism of local officials but have begun cracking down on reporting of the outbreak, issuing reprimands to tech firms that gave free rein to online speech, Chinese journalists said.
The pathogen has been named COVID-19 – CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year it emerged. It is suspected to have come from a market that illegally traded wildlife in Hubei’s capital of Wuhan in December.
The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown as part of China’s unprecedented measures to seal infected regions and limit transmission routes.
Travel restrictions that have paralyzed the world’s second-biggest economy have left Wuhan and other Chinese cities resembling ghost towns.
World stocks, which had seen rounds of sell-offs over the virus, surged to record highs on hopes of a peak in cases. The Dow industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit new highs, and Asian shares nudged higher on Wednesday. [MKTS/GLOB]
Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has taken a toll of China’s economy, with companies laying off workers and needing loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for makers of items from cars to smartphones have broken down.
Wu Chaoming, chief economist at Fortune Securities, said the impact on China’s labor market would be far greater than that of a 2002-2003 outbreak of another coronavirus that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
About 24% of the labor force risked a pay cut or even being laid off, he said.
ANZ Bank said China’s first-quarter growth would probably slow to 3.2% to 4.0%, down from a projection of 5.0%.
China will stagger the re-opening of schools to stave off virus risks, a government official said.
Reporting by Ryan Woo, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu, Judy Hua, Kevin Yao, Zhang Min and Dominique Patton in Beijing; Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Keith Zhai in Singapore; Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; David Lawder and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Stephen Coates and Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez
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