CORONAVIRUS | The Chinese province at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands of 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 stabilising 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 from the newly discovered virus to more than 1,350, all but two in China and most - about 1,310 - in Hubei.
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 computerised tomography (CT) scans, which reveal lung infections, to confirm virus cases, health officials said.
As a result, another new 14,840 cases were reported in Hubei 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 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.
The outbreak is one of the biggest tests facing the Chinese government in years and blame has fallen on provincial leaders.
State media reported provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang (photo) 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 following the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan late last year.
"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 epidemic, which is believed to have emerged from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday the number of cases of infection in China had stabilised but it was too early to say the epidemic was slowing.
"This outbreak could still go in any direction," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing in Geneva.
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 Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines over fears 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 are facing severe travel restrictions.
Many airlines have suspended flights to China, while countries have imposed bans or quarantine for people arriving from China, disrupting businesses and playing havoc with conferences and sporting events.
The Mobile World Congress, a telecoms industry gathering that draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona, has been cancelled after an exodus of exhibitors.
The Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, set for Shanghai on April 19, was postponed, as was Singapore's rugby sevens tournament scheduled for April 11-12, a source said.
Hong Kong, where 50 cases have been confirmed, extended the suspension of schools to March 16.