Coronavirus response delay could have seen 100,000 cases, China expert says as mainland reports 433 new infections

A bus passenger in Seoul wears a face mask as protection from the new coronavirus. Photo: Xinhua. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, Feb 27, 2020, SCMP. The number of daily coronavirus infections in South Korea could exceed those in China, with Beijing reporting 433 new cases on Thursday – slightly higher than the 406 of a day earlier – while South Korean cases surged on Thursday morning to 334, bringing its total infections to 1,595, South China Morning Post reported.

If the number of new infections reported by Seoul continues to rise at the rate of recent days, South Korea’s cases could surpass China’s as early as Thursday afternoon, when health officials there are due to report their latest figures.

China’s National Health Commission said 409 of its new cases were reported in Hubei province – the epicentre of the outbreak. So far, 78,497 people on the mainland have been infected. There were 29 new deaths reported on Thursday morning, bringing the death toll to 2,744. The commission said a total of 32,495 patients had recovered from the illness.

But cases outside Hubei returned to double digits, with 24 cases reported, a jump from just nine and five cases over the past two days respectively.

Early action would have limited outbreak

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top respiratory disease expert, said the number of patients would have been greatly reduced if China had taken action in early December, or even in early January. China announced human-to-human transmission of the virus on January 20, and Zhong said a delay of just a few more days could have led to well over 100,000 infections.

“There have been three coronavirus outbreaks since the beginning of the 21st century. We should take actions to prevent it spreading whenever there is a coronavirus infection case. This is a big lesson for us,” Zhong said.

He also called for more authority to be given to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its local branches. Currently CDC branches only report to their local governments who decide what action to take on communicable diseases.

“In other countries, the CDC can report to the central government, and even alert the public directly under ‘special circumstances’. Although our expert team announced on January 20 that human to human transmissions had occurred, but that (the transmission) was discovered much earlier … nobody paid attention to it,” Zhong said.

He said doctors, including Li Wenliang, had raised the alarm in mid to late December but it was not reported to the government until December 30, adding that the local government had not paid attention to the warnings, “or they did not understand what it was. That is why the spread has not been stopped”.

Outbreak could be ‘under control’ by April

Zhong said he was confident the coronavirus outbreak would be “basically under control” in the country by the end of April.

“Although there was a large outbreak in Wuhan, we did not see massive outbreaks in other cities,” he said. “We predicted earlier that the peak should take place in mid or late February, due to the strong intervention by the state and the cancellation of travel peaks after Chinese New Year Holiday.

“It turned out the number of cases began to drop after February 15. Our forecast was similar to some other foreign authoritative experts, and we are confident that the epidemic would be basically under control in April,” he said.

Zhong said forecasts by foreign experts – some of whom said more than 160,000 would be infected – did not take into account the interventions by the Chinese government. He said an article by his team, which predicted around 70,000 patients, was submitted to an international publication but the paper was not accepted.

China ‘must improve’ cooperation

Zhong said one infected patient on average infected a further two to three people and that China should improve cooperation and share its experience with other countries, as cases were rising rapidly in countries like South Korea, Italy and Iran.

When asked if foreign cases may be imported into China, he said China must improve cooperation with other countries and share its experience. He also said China should see what it could do to help South Korea, adding that he was willing to join regional forums to share his country’s expertise.

First case ‘may not have originated in China’

Zhong said even though the outbreaks had started in China, the first case of the coronavirus may not have occurred there.

“When we were making forecasts, we only thought about China and not other countries. But now outbreaks are taking place in other countries. Though the outbreaks started in China, it does not necessarily mean China was the source,” he said.

Zhong said many wild animals could be the carriers of the virus causing Covid-19, not just pangolins. The source of the virus was still unknown, he said.

South Korea spread widens

More than half of the new cases in South Korea came from a branch of a secretive Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu. The South China Morning Post reported that Chinese authorities are screening members of the sect in China.

So far, 13 people have died in South Korea from the fast-spreading virus. Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting another six cases, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said in a statement.

Australia implements emergency response

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country’s travel ban against mainland China would be extended by at least one more week, as Australia kicked off emergency measures to restrain the spread of the disease.

Morrison said the world would soon enter a coronavirus pandemic and called for action to prevent the spread. “The advice we have received today is… there is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus,” he told a televised news conference in Canberra.

“As a result we have agreed today and initiated the… coronavirus emergency response plan,” he added.

Viral load remains high weeks after infection

A Hong Kong study of Covid-19 patients found their viral load remained high, up to three weeks after their diagnosis.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) team analysed the first 23 confirmed cases in the city and found that patients had the highest viral load on their first day of admission to hospital.

Ho Pak-leung, a leading microbiologist at HKU, said the viral load remained high – even after 14 and 21 days of infection – and added that the amount of virus in saliva and sputum was up to 100 million per millilitre.

Beijing cluster reported

Coronavirus infections in Beijing jumped on Wednesday, with 10 new cases reported after days of zero or single-digit cases in the city.

The cluster – nine cleaners and one cook at a government-sponsored institute – were all close contacts of a cleaner who returned to her home in Handan, Hebei province on February 3 and was later confirmed to have been infected.

The first case in the cluster showed symptoms on February 18, and the infection was confirmed on February 24. All of those in the cluster live in a basement dormitory or work nearby.

The institution was not identified by the local authority, which said only that numerous cases had been reported there.

First case of community outbreak in US

US health officials said on Wednesday they had detected a possible case of “community spread” of Covid-19 – the disease caused by the new coronavirus – with a patient testing positive for the virus, despite having no travel history to places with outbreaks or of being exposed to someone already infected.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statement was released soon after President Donald Trump said in a White House press briefing that he had appointed Vice-President Mike Pence to lead the effort to contain the spread of the illness.

Community transmission – in which multiple cases are detected without any clear source of infection – could significantly weaken the effectiveness of containment measures such as travel restrictions.

China reports first ‘imported’ case

The risk of the coronavirus being imported to China rose on Wednesday, with the small autonomous region of Ningxia reporting a case of a patient who had travelled from Iran.

Local health authorities in the north-central Chinese region said the patient had worn an N95 mask while travelling from Iran to Moscow on February 19. He stayed in the Russian capital for 16 hours before boarding another flight to Shanghai.

The patient then travelled by train from Shanghai on February 22, arriving at Lanzhou, in the northwestern province of Gansu, a day later. He took another train and arrived in Zhongwei, Ningxia on February 24. Health authorities said the patient had worn a mask during train journeys.

Saudi Arabia suspends religious visits

Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina – the Islamic world’s holiest cities which draw millions of people a year – to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The foreign ministry said entry to the kingdom for the purpose of Umrah – the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca which can be undertaken at any time of year – and visiting the Prophet’s Mosque had been temporarily suspended.

Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the region, where 15 people have succumbed to the disease.

More than 40 countries affected

The deadly new coronavirus has spread to more than 40 countries outside China, with additional European countries reporting infections related to Italy, the continent’s worst-affected country.

Greece confirmed its first case on Wednesday, while Finland and Sweden both reported their second cases. All three patients had been to northern Italy. Norway also announced its first case, a patient who had returned from China late last week. Denmark confirmed its first infection, a person who had returned from a skiing holiday in northern Italy.

Separately, Georgia – bordering Russia and Turkey – confirmed its first case, a 50-year-old Georgian national who had arrived from Iran, which has the most fatalities outside China. Pakistan also reported its first two cases of novel coronavirus on Wednesday.

The virus has now spread to six of the seven continents, with Brazil confirming its first case on Wednesday. The patient is a 61-year-old Sao Paulo resident who recently travelled to Lombardy – one of two northern Italian regions at the centre of the outbreak in Europe – for work from February 9 to 21.
North Macedonia also confirmed its first case of coronavirus infection, a Macedonian woman who recently returned home from Italy.

Japanese patients test positive after treatment

A coronavirus patient in Japan who was discharged from hospital after recovery has again tested positive, officials said on Thursday, as the country grappled with rising public unhappiness over the slow pace of virus testing.

The woman, a tour guide in her 40s, had been treated at a hospital in Osaka prefecture and left early in February, NHK reported. She was on a bus carrying tourists from Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak originated last December.

China to take wildlife off the dining table

Chinese authorities plan to outlaw wildlife markets for trade and consumption in the fight to curb coronavirus outbreaks, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, which oversees ecological and wildlife conservation, said at a meeting on Wednesday.

The forestry and grassland administration said it would comprehensively clean up and regulate wildlife breeding institutions, revoking licences for farms which breed wildlife for consumption and prohibiting the transport and sale of wildlife for eating.

The decision was passed by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress on Monday. It required multiple bureaus, including the forestry, police, market supervision and transportation, to inspect wildlife trade markets and restaurants to completely prohibit the consumption of wild animals.

China lodges formal protest over ‘racist’ article

China’s foreign ministry said it had protested to the US embassy in Beijing over a Wall Street Journal commentary it deemed racist.

China would take further action if the US added more restrictions to Chinese news agencies in the US, according to Hua Chunying, the ministry’s head of information.

Expelled Wall Street Journal reporters leave China after headline row

Hua hit back at US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks that China’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters – in retaliation for the article – was a violation of press freedom.

The newspaper commentary, headlined “China is the real sick man of Asia” triggered condemnation among Chinese officials and the online community.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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