China’s new coronavirus cases drop but outbreak remains unpredictable, WHO says

The latest:

  • China says the number of new cases reported in 24-hour period dropped to 2,015.
  • Number of deaths in mainland China hits 1,113, health commission says.
  • WHO warns epidemic could still ‘go in any direction’.
  • WHO gives disease caused by novel coronavirus a name: COVID-19.
  • Leading Chinese epidemiologist cautions that situation in Wuhan still a concern, citing concerns about transmission of the virus.
  • More cases confirmed on Diamond Princess ship, but MS Westerdam — which has no confirmed cases — will dock in Cambodia after being turned away at other ports.
  • Risk to people in Canada remains low, top public health official says.

China reported on Wednesday 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 United Nations health authorities warned it could still “go in any direction.”
 
The 2,015 new confirmed cases took China’s total to 44,653. The number of cases declined for a second consectuive day.

The World Health Organization has likened the epidemic’s threat to terrorism, and WHO 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 said at a briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.

Another expert said that while the coronavirus may be peaking in China, that might not be 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 co-ordinated by the WHO, said in an interview from Singapore.

“In Singapore, we are at the beginning.”
 
Singapore has 50 cases.

 
Hundreds of infections have been reported in dozens of other countries and territories, but only two people have died outside mainland China: one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.

British health officials announced on Wednesday the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country had risen to nine, saying the latest patient had caught the virus in China.
 
After a two-day WHO meeting in Geneva on research and innovation into measures to tackle the new viral outbreak, 
Tedros welcomed the enthusiasm of participating scientists.
 
He said a WHO-led advance team, led by Canadian Dr. Bruce Aylward, travelled to China this week and made good progress in outlining 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.”

On Tuesday, WHO announced the illness caused by the virus is now named COVID-19, reflecting the fact the disease comes from a new coronavirus discovered in 2019.

The illness was first reported in December and connected to a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak has largely been concentrated.

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Meanwhile, in Japan, another 39 people have tested positive for the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined there, with one quarantine officer also infected, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

The Diamond Princess was placed in quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on Feb. 3, after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. 

Princess Cruises confirmed Wednesday morning that the additional cases brings the total confirmed case count for guests and crew to 174.

“We are following guidance from the Japan Ministry of Health on plans for disembarkation protocols to provide medical care for these new cases,” the company said in a statement.

The Diamond Princess is not the only ship that is dealing with the fallout of the outbreak. The MS Westerdam, which has 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members on board, has been turned away by several ports amid fear that someone on the ship might have the coronavirus.

Medical workers discharge the first batch of coronavirus patients who’ve recovered at Hongshan gymnasium in Wuhan, China, on Tuesday. (Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty)

On Wednesday, Holland America Line announced that Cambodia has agreed to take the ship, which has not reported having any sick passengers.

“All guests on board are healthy, and despite erroneous reports there are no known or suspected cases of coronavirus on board, nor have there ever been,” a statement from the cruise line said.

In Canada, the number of confirmed cases still stands at seven — with four in B.C. and three in Ontario. On Wednesday, public health officials in Ontario said that one of the three patients in the province had returned two negative tests for the virus within 24 hours. Two other people with the virus are doing well enough to be out of hospital.

A worker in a protective suit serves customers at a checkout counter of a supermarket in Wuhan on Wednesday. The World Health Organization has named the disease caused by the new virus COVID-19, avoiding any animal or geographic designation to avoid stigmatization and to show the disease comes from a new coronavirus discovered in 2019. (Reuters)

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, reiterated Tuesday that the risk to people in Canada — including people living near CFB Trenton in Ontario, where individuals who were repatriated from China are living under quarantine — remains low.

Top health officials in Hubei no longer on the job

China’s official media reported Tuesday that the top health officials in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have been relieved of their duties. No reasons were given, although the province’s initial response was deemed slow and ineffective. Speculation that higher-level officials could be sacked has simmered, but doing so could spark political infighting and be a tacit admission of responsibility.

The virus outbreak has become the latest political challenge for the Communist party and its leader, Xi Jinping, who despite accruing more political power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has struggled to handle crises on multiple fronts. These include a sharply slowing domestic economy, the trade war with the U.S. and push-back on China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies.

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Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said that while the virus outbreak in China may peak this month, the situation at the centre of the crisis remains more challenging.

“We still need more time of hard working in Wuhan,” he said, describing the isolation of infected patients there a priority. “We have to stop more people from being infected.”

He noted that “the problem of human to human transmission has not yet been resolved.”

Sam Wong, right, who owns 66 Hotpot, a family-run restaurant in the bustling Hong Kong district of Mongkok, takes the temperature of a member of his staff on Wednesday. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Without enough facilities to handle the number of cases, Wuhan has been building prefabricated hospitals and converting a gym and other large spaces to house patients and try to isolate them from others.

The restart of business poses a risk of further spreading the virus, but China has little recourse, said Cong Liang, secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning body.

On Wednesday, Formula One’s governing body said the Chinese Grand Prix scheduled for April in Shanghai has been postponed due to the virus.

“Without the reopening of businesses, in the short term, it will affect the supply of medical material and … in the long run, it will affect the supply of all kinds of production and life materials and will make the control and prevention efforts on the front line unsustainable. The target of defeating the epidemic will not be reached,” Cong said at a news conference. 

During the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), an illness caused by a related virus, a number of infections in Hong Kong were linked to one building’s sewage pipes.

Hong Kong has confirmed 49 cases in the current outbreak.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said that while the virus outbreak in China may peak this month, the situation at the centre of the crisis remains more challenging. ‘We have to stop more people from being infected,’ he said. (Thomas Suen/Reuters)

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