The Chinese province at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands more cases on Thursday under a new diagnostic method, suggesting a much bigger crisis facing China and the world.
Asian stock markets wobbled and the safe-havens of the Japanese yen, gold and bonds rose after the new numbers from Hubei province dashed hopes the epidemic was stabilizing and the Chinese economy could bounce back quickly.
Health officials in Hubei 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.
That took total deaths in China from the newly discovered virus to 1,367, up 254 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.
The spike in the numbers came a day after markets were cheered when China reported its lowest number of new cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by the country’s senior medical adviser that the epidemic could end by April.
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, the Hubei health commission said, to confirm virus cases and isolate them faster.
As a result, another new 14,840 cases were reported in the central province on Thursday, from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier.
About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority of them in China.
The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, said 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,” she told Reuters. “It is important that these also be counted.”
The new testing is only being used in Hubei, officials said.
Consultancy Capital Economics said the surge did not necessarily point to an acceleration in the spread of the virus but rather that official figures had been understating its prevalence.
“For now, the latest figures don’t appear to undermine the recent tentative signs that the spread of the virus may be slowing,” it said.
The outbreak, which is believed to have emerged late last year from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally, is one of the biggest tests facing the Chinese government in years and blame has fallen on provincial leaders.
State 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.
It did not give a reason for the dismissals but the two are the most high-profile Chinese officials to be removed from duty since the outbreak began.
“It’s a long political tradition to blame local officials, to direct the people’s anger toward local officials and not to the top leadership,” said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday the number of infections in China had stabilized but it was too early to say the epidemic was slowing.
Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs and preliminary clinical trial results are weeks away, but a vaccine could take 18 months to develop.
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 one in the Philippines.
‘IS THIS REAL?’
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, where a further 44 cases were reported on Thursday. In all, 219 of about 3,700 people on board have tested positive.
There was a happy ending for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which docked in Cambodia after being denied docking rights in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears that one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew might have the virus, even though none had tested positive.
“Just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment,” Angela Jones, an American tourist on the ship, told Reuters. “I thought: Is this real?”
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, remains under virtual lockdown, and other major Chinese cities face severe restrictions.
Many airlines have suspended flights to China, while countries have imposed bans or quarantine for those arriving from China, disrupting businesses and playing havoc with conferences and sporting events.
The Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, set for April 19 in Shanghai, was postponed, as was Singapore’s rugby sevens tournament, scheduled for April 11 and 12, a source said.
Hong Kong will also postpone its rugby sevens, due from April 3 to 5, media said.