New cases of COVID-19 coronavirus infection dropped for a third consecutive day today, as World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned it is “impossible” to predict how the outbreak will develop.
Concern remains high around the world about the spread of the virus, which emerged in China’s central Hubei province in December. The first death outside Asia was reported in France yesterday. An 80-year-old Chinese tourist was the fourth person outside of China to die from the virus, with the other deaths occurring in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.
The death toll climbed to 1,665 in mainland China today after 142 more deaths were reported. More than 68,000 people are now infected, but the number of new cases of the COVID-19 strain is falling. In Hubei, the number of new cases slowed for a third day and at 139, the number of deaths was equal to Saturday’s toll. The number of new cases in other parts of the country has dropped for twelve straight days.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was cautious, however. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, he said:
“[It is] impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take. We ask all governments, companies, and news organisations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria”
“China has bought the world time. We don’t know how much time.”
The UN health body has asked China for more details on how diagnoses are being made, after a spike in reported cases on Thursday when authorities in Hubei changed their “methodology for diagnosing the coronavirus,” retroactively adding thousands of new patients to their tally. Hubei added more than 14,000 cases in a single day after officials there started counting people clinically diagnosed through lung imaging, in addition to those with a positive lab test result.
Chinese authorities have placed around 56 million people in Hubei, and its capital Wuhan, under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country and the world, in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus. Beijing’s municipal government has enacted a rule requiring all people coming to the capital to quarantine themselves for 14 days, warning that violators would be punished, according to state media.
The biggest cluster outside China is on a quarantined cruise ship off Japan, with 335 infections as of today. A US State Department spokesperson says Americans stranded on the vessel will be evacuated and face further quarantine of two weeks in the United States. Hong Kong also announced it will charter a flight for the city’s residents on the ship, who will stay at a quarantine centre for 14 days on their return. Several countries have banned arrivals from China and major airlines have cut services to the country.
With China’s government facing criticism over its handling of the crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for tighter policing “to protect social stability.”
“[The government must] increase use of police force and strengthen the visible use of police to ensure stability during the crisis.”
China’s central bank says it will also banknotes with ultraviolet light or high temperatures and store them for up to 14 days before they are put back into circulation.