BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – 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 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. 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 and markets, where global stocks surged to record highs on hopes of an end to disruption in the world’s second largest economy. [MKTS/GLOB]
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 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 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 (DBSM.SI), 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 travelled to China this week had made good progress on the composition and scope of its work.
The head of the WHO’s emergency programme, Dr. Mike Ryan, said it was too early “to predict the beginning, the middle or end of the epidemic”.
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 (CCL.N), is among foreign companies taking a hit from the outbreak, with many flights suspended and businesses disrupted.
Planemaker Boeing (BA.N) 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.”
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%-4.0%, down from a projection of 5.0%.
The latest big event to be cancelled was the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, originally set for Shanghai on April 19.
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Reporting by Ryan Woo, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu, Judy Hua, Kevin Yao, Zhang Min, Dominique Patton, Se Young Lee, Gabriel Crossley, Colin Qian, Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Keith Zhai and John Geddie in Singapore; Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Kate Kelland in London; Kay Johnson in Baghdad; Abhishek Takle in Baku; Isla Binnie in Madrid; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot