China's new virus cases fall again, deaths now exceed 1,100

The latest:

  • China’s health commission says the number of new cases reported in 24-hour period dropped to 2,015.
  • Number of deaths in mainland China hits 1,113, health commission says.
  • WHO gives disease caused by novel coronavirus a name: COVID-19.
  • Leading Chinese epidemiologist cautions that situation in Wuhan still a concern, citing concerns about transmission of the virus.
  • More cases confirmed on Diamond Princess ship, but MS Westerdam — which has no confirmed cases — will dock in Cambodia after being turned away at other ports.
  • Risk to people in Canada remains low, top public health official says.

China on Wednesday reported another drop in the number of new cases of a viral infection and 97 more deaths, pushing the total dead past 1,100 even as the country remains largely closed down to prevent the spread of the disease.

The country’s National Health Commission on Wednesday said 2,015 new cases had been reported over the last 24 hours, declining for a second day. A statement from the health commission put the total number of cases in mainland China at 44,653, although many experts say a large number of others infected have gone uncounted.

The 97 additional deaths from the virus raised the mainland toll to 1,113, the commission said.

Despite the official end of the extended Lunar New Year holiday, China remained mostly closed for business as many remained at home, with some 60 million people under virtual quarantine.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the number of newly confirmed cases in China has stabilized over the past week, but that needs to be interpreted with extreme caution. 

“This outbreak could still go in any direction,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing in Geneva on Wednesday. 

WHO emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said as of Tuesday, only 22 per cent of the illnesses outside of China were due to localized transmission that can’t be traced to travel to the epicentre of the outbreak.

On Tuesday, WHO announced the illness caused by the virus is now named COVID-19, reflecting the fact the disease comes from a new coronavirus discovered in 2019.

The illness was first reported in December and connected to a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak has largely been concentrated.

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Meanwhile, in Japan, another 39 people have tested positive for the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined there, with one quarantine officer also infected, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

The Diamond Princess was placed in quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on Feb. 3, after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. 

Princess Cruises confirmed Wednesday morning that the additional cases brings the total confirmed case count for guests and crew to 174.

“We are following guidance from the Japan Ministry of Health on plans for disembarkation protocols to provide medical care for these new cases,” the company said in a statement.

The Diamond Princess is not the only ship that is dealing with the fallout of the outbreak. The MS Westerdam, which has 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members on board, has been turned away by several ports amid fear that someone on the ship might have the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Holland America Line announced that Cambodia has agreed to take the ship, which has not reported having any sick passengers.

“All guests on board are healthy, and despite erroneous reports there are no known or suspected cases of coronavirus on board, nor have there ever been,” a statement from the cruise line said.

In Canada, the number of confirmed cases still stands at seven — with four in B.C. and three in Ontario. On Wednesday, public health officials in Ontario said that one of the three patients in the province had returned two negative tests for the virus within 24 hours. Two other people with the virus are doing well enough to be out of hospital.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, reiterated Tuesday that the risk to people in Canada — including people living near CFB Trenton in Ontario, where individuals who were repatriated from China are living under quarantine — remains low.

Top health officials in Hubei no longer on the job

China’s official media reported Tuesday that the top health officials in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have been relieved of their duties. No reasons were given, although the province’s initial response was deemed slow and ineffective. Speculation that higher-level officials could be sacked has simmered, but doing so could spark political infighting and be a tacit admission of responsibility.

The virus outbreak has become the latest political challenge for the Communist party and its leader, Xi Jinping, who despite accruing more political power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has struggled to handle crises on multiple fronts. These include a sharply slowing domestic economy, the trade war with the U.S. and push-back on China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies.

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Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said that while the virus outbreak in China may peak this month, the situation at the centre of the crisis remains more challenging.

“We still need more time of hard working in Wuhan,” he said, describing the isolation of infected patients there a priority. “We have to stop more people from being infected.”

He noted that “the problem of human to human transmission has not yet been resolved.”

Without enough facilities to handle the number of cases, Wuhan has been building prefabricated hospitals and converting a gym and other large spaces to house patients and try to isolate them from others.

The restart of business poses a risk of further spreading the virus, but China has little recourse, said Cong Liang, secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning body.

On Wednesday, Formula One’s governing body said the Chinese Grand Prix scheduled for April in Shanghai has been postponed due to the virus.

“Without the reopening of businesses, in the short term, it will affect the supply of medical material and … in the long run, it will affect the supply of all kinds of production and life materials and will make the control and prevention efforts on the front line unsustainable. The target of defeating the epidemic will not be reached,” Cong said at a news conference. 

During the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), an illness caused by a related virus, a number of infections in Hong Kong were linked to one building’s sewage pipes.

Hong Kong has confirmed 49 cases in the current outbreak.

A worker in a protective suit serves customers at a checkout counter of a supermarket in Wuhan, China on Wednesday. The World Health Organization has named the disease caused by the new virus COVID-19, avoiding any animal or geographic designation to avoid stigmatization and to show the disease comes from a new coronavirus discovered in 2019. (Reuters)

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