BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China reported on Wednesday its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in nearly two weeks, lending weight to a forecast by its foremost medical adviser for the outbreak to end by April – but a global expert warned it was only beginning elsewhere.
The 2,015 new confirmed cases took China’s total to 44,653. That was the lowest daily rise since Jan. 30 and came a day after epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan forecast the epidemic would peak in China this month before subsiding.
His comments gave some balm to public fears and to markets, where global stocks surged to record highs on hopes of an end to disruption in the world’s second largest economy.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) has likened the epidemic’s threat to terrorism and one expert said that while it may be peaking in China, this was not the case beyond.
“It has spread to other places where it’s the beginning of the outbreak,” Dale Fisher, head of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the WHO, said in an interview in Singapore.
“In Singapore, we are at the beginning of the outbreak.”
Singapore has 47 cases. Its biggest bank, DBS (DBSM.SI), evacuated 300 staff on Wednesday after a case at head office.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in dozens of other countries and territories, but only two people have died outside mainland China: one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
China’s latest figures also showed that 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 data is, after the government last week amended guidelines on classification.
For graphic comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS, click: tmsnrt.rs/2GK6YVK
For Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus, click: tmsnrt.rs/2GVwIyw
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s port of Yokohama, with about 3,700 people on board. Japanese officials on Wednesday said 39 more people had tested positive for the virus, taking the total to 175.
One of the new cases was a quarantine officer.
There was a happy ending in sight for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines had refused to let dock over fears one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew may have the virus.
Cambodia finally agreed to let it land, the Holland America Line said. Passengers have been whiling away time playing chess and doing puzzles.
“The staff has tried to bolster spirits but you can only play so many games of trivia,” American passenger Angela Jones told Reuters in a video. “I’ve asked others who say they are napping a lot”.
China’s state news agency Xinhua called the epidemic a “battle that has no gunpowder smoke” and chided some officials for “dropping the ball” in places where it was most severe.
There was no lack of zeal, however, in the city of Chongqing where prosecutors brought charges against a man who strapped on firecrackers, doused himself with gasoline and held up a lighter to defy a ban on public gatherings.
He had planned a birthday banquet, Xinhua said.
The outbreak has been named COVID-19 – CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year. It is suspected to have come from a market that illegally traded wildlife in Hubei province’s capital of Wuhan in December.
The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown as part of China’s unprecedented measures to seal infected regions and limit transmission routes.
Measures by the United States and others to curb visitors from China have offended Beijing, which says they are an unscientific, fear-based over-reaction. There has been a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, some of it in ugly social media posts.
A Xinhua commentary chided some Western media for “racist reporting” on the coronarivus.
“These sensational and unfounded allegations from a few Western media outlets have turned a blind eye to the unswerving efforts and huge sacrifice China and its people have made,” it said.
“Just as the H1N1 influenza outbreak in the United States in 2009 should not be called an ‘American virus,’ the NCP (novel coronavirus pneumonia) is neither a ‘China virus’ nor ‘Wuhan virus’.”
With companies laying off workers and supply chains disrupted from the car industry to smartphones, China’s economy is taking a big hit. ANZ Bank said first quarter growth may slow to between 3.2-4.0%, down from a projection of 5.0%.
Reporting by Ryan Woo, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu, Judy Hua, Kevin Yao, Zhang Min, Dominique Patton, Se Young Lee, Gabriel Crossley, Colin Qian, Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Keith Zhai in Singapore; Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Kay Johnson in Baghdad; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Timothy Heritage