BEIJING/TOKYO, February 14 ------ The Chinese province at the center of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands more infections using a broader definition on Thursday, while Japan became the third place outside mainland China to suffer a fatality. The epidemic has given China’s ruling Communist Party one of its sternest challenges in years, constrained the world’s second largest economy and triggered a purge of provincial bureaucrats. With China’s streets, restaurants and flower markets bare, a miserable Valentine’s Day was expected on Friday.
Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death - a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo - adding to two previous fatalities in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Japan is one of the worst affected of more than two dozen other countries and territories that have seen hundreds of infections from the flu-like sickness. The Japanese woman fell ill in January but only later showed symptoms of pneumonia and was hospitalized, with coronavirus confirmed after her death and the contagion route under investigation, the health minister said.
However, the big jump in China’s reported cases reflects a decision by authorities there to reclassify a backlog of suspected cases by using patients’ chest images, and is not necessarily the “tip of an iceberg” of a wider epidemic, a top World Health Organization official said on Thursday. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, said that more than 14,000 new cases reported in Hubei province overnight came after a change to include results from quicker computerized tomography (CT) scans that reveal lung infections, rather than relying just on laboratory tests to confirm cases. “We’ve seen this spike in the number of cases reported in China, but this does not represent a significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak,” Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.
The biggest cluster of infections outside China is on a cruise liner now quarantined off a Japanese port and a further 44 cases were reported on board on Thursday, raising the total to 219. But authorities said some elderly people would finally to be allowed to disembark on Friday. “Outside the cases on the Diamond Princess Cruise ship we are not seeing a dramatic increase in transmission outside China,” the WHO’s Ryan said. He added that the main U.N. health agency expected the rest of a special WHO team to arrive in China over the coming weekend to investigative the epicenter of the epidemic.
U.S. President Donald Trump praised China over its response and said Washington was working closely with Beijing. “I think they’ve handled it professionally, and I think they’re extremely capable,” Trump said in a podcast broadcast on iHeart Radio. But Trump’s top White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was more critical. “We’re a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese, these numbers are jumping around... there was some surprise,” he told reporters.