The number of coronavirus deaths and cases reported in the Chinese province at the centre of the outbreak spiked dramatically on Thursday, dashing hopes that the virus’s spread was stabilising.
Hubei province officials said 242 more people had died from the virus on Wednesday, the sharpest rise in the death toll since Covid-19 was first identified in December, taking the total deaths above 1,350.
And 14,840 new cases were reported, seeing the total infected worldwide rise above 60,000. The spike comes in part from a move by health officials in Hubei to accept positive CT scans as confirmation that a patient is infected, rather than waiting for an RNA lab test.
Experts say the move will allow people to get treatment more quickly and could save lives, but it will also mean a higher number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the short term.
It comes after just 2,015 new China cases were reported on Wednesday, a low number that suggested the outbreak might be stabilising. The WHO nonetheless warned against complacency with director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus telling reporters: “This outbreak could still go in any direction.”
Meanwhile, Beijing moved to sack two top provincial officials, the Communist Party’s highest-ranking bosses in both Hubei and the city of Wuhan respectively, amid criticism of how the outbreak was handled.
The death of a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, who was initially told to keep his concerns about the virus quiet, has received widespread international attention, and experts say the outbreak could have been better contained if local officials had responded more quickly and effectively.
Reports in state-run 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 Wuhan. The reports did not give a reason for the dismissals.
Dozens of low-level health officials across the country have also lost their jobs for failing to contain the epidemic.
"Thank you Communist Party. It should have been done earlier," Wuhan resident Wang You told Reuters.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China remains 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, said. "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 19 April, was postponed, as was Singapore's rugby sevens tournament scheduled for 11-12 April.
Hong Kong, where 50 cases have been confirmed, extended the suspension of schools to 16 March.
Additional reporting by agencies
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