BEIJING: China reported on Wednesday (Feb 12) its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since January, lending weight to a prediction by its senior medical adviser that the outbreak could end by April.
International experts, however, remain alarmed by the spread of the flu-like virus which has now killed more than 1,100 people, all but two in mainland China.
China's foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said on Tuesday 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.
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.
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 told reporters on Tuesday, adding 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."
"I think 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 on Wednesday, while praising China's "Herculean efforts" to contain the virus.
The biggest cluster of cases outside of China was aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama with about 3,700 people on board. Japanese officials on Wednesday said another 39 people had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing 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 THAT MUST BE WON"
Echoing the WHO's comparison with the fight against terrorism, China's state news agency Xinhua said in an article published late on Tuesday the epidemic was a "battle that has no gunpowder smoke but must be won".
It warned the epidemic was a "big test of China's governance system and capabilities" and said some officials were still "dropping the ball" in places where it was most severe.
"This is a wake-up call for us," it said.
Hubei's government dismissed the provincial health commission's Communist Party boss, state media said on Tuesday, amid mounting public anger over local authorities' handling of 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, according to Chinese journalists.
DEALS ON HOLD
The pathogen has been officially named COVID-19 - CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year it emerged. The virus emerged from an illegal wildlife market in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan in December.
The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown and other Chinese cities resemble ghost towns due to travel restrictions which have paralysed the world's second-biggest economy.
World stocks, which had seen rounds of sell-offs over the coronarvirus' impact on China's economy and its ripple effects, surged to record highs on Zhong's comments. The Dow industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit new peaks.
Asian shares and Wall Street futures nudged higher on Wednesday amid hopes the worst of the coronavirus in China may have passed.
Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has already taken a toll on China's economy, as companies began laying off workers and other firms said they would need loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for car manufacturers to smartphone makers have broken down.
Bankers in Asia are bracing for a deal drought as key meetings and roadshows are put on hold.
"All our deals are on hold now - capital markets or M&A. Nothing is happening," said a Hong Kong-based senior investment banker with a Wall Street bank.
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the coronavirus outbreak could reduce Chinese purchases of American agricultural products this year under the US-China Phase 1 trade deal.
ANZ Bank said China’s first-quarter growth would probably slow to 3.2 per cent to 4 per cent, down from a projection of 5 per cent.
China will stagger the re-opening of schools to stave off virus risks, a government official said.