CORONAVIRUS | China on Wednesday reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since late January, lending credence to a prediction from the country's senior medical adviser that the outbreak could be over 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 cases of the new coronavirus in China have now hit 44,653, according to Chinese health officials, including 2,015 new confirmed cases on Feb 11. That was the lowest daily rise in new cases since Jan. 30.
China last week amended its guidelines on prevention and control of the coronavirus, saying that only when asymptomatic cases show clinical signs should they be recorded as a confirmed case. However, it is not clear if the government data previously included asymptomatic cases.
The number killed on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday.
While Chinese health officials said the situation was under control, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned 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.
Hundreds of cases have been reported in dozens of countries and territories around the world, including one fatality in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
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.
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 coronavirus' impact, 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 may have passed.
Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has already taken a toll on China's economy, with companies laying off workers and other firms needing loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for car manufacturers to smartphone makers have broken down.
Any stimulus measures to boost the economy should not come at the expense of structural reforms and steps to address rapid credit growth, a senior International Monetary Fund official said.
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.
Cisco Systems Inc, Facebook Inc, AT&T and Sprint Corp became the latest US technology companies to pull out of an international telecoms conference in Barcelona because of the outbreak. The organiser of the event, the telecom industry's biggest annual gathering, will discuss whether to cancel it, an industry source said.