BEIJING: China reported a dramatic drop in new coronavirus cases, but scientists reported the new virus may spread even more easily than previously believed.
Mainland China had 394 new confirmed cases of infections on Wednesday (Feb 19), the National Health Commission said on Thursday, down from 1,749 cases a day earlier and the lowest since Jan 23.
That brings the total accumulated number of confirmed cases in mainland China so far to 74,576.
The death toll from the outbreak in mainland China had reached 2,118 as of the end of Wednesday, up by 114 from the previous day.
The central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, reported 108 new deaths, while in the provincial capital of Wuhan, 88 people died.
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On Wednesday, China's health authority released the sixth edition of its diagnostic criteria for the coronavirus, removing a category of cases diagnosed clinically, such as through chest X-rays, in Hubei.
The Hubei health commission did not say in its statement if the sharp drop in the province's new confirmed cases was due to the change.
China is struggling to get its economy back on track after imposing severe travel restrictions to contain the virus, which emerged late last year in Wuhan.
Beyond mainland China, six people have died from the disease, and governments around the world are trying to prevent it from spreading into a global pandemic.
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Scientists published on Wednesday preliminary findings in the New England Journal of Medicine that suggested the coronavirus spreads easily, including through patients who have no symptoms.
The findings add to evidence that the new virus, though genetically similar, is not behaving like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), said Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla who uses gene sequencing tools to track disease outbreaks.
"This virus is clearly much more capable of spreading between humans than any other novel coronavirus we've ever seen. This is more akin to the spread of flu," said Andersen, who was not involved with the study.
The researchers said their findings add to reports that the virus can be transmitted early in the course of the infection, and suggest that controlling the virus will require an approach different from what worked with SARS, which primarily involved controlling its spread in a hospital setting.