Coronavirus: experimental treatments give hope as China death toll hits 1,523

Cissy Zhou

China reported 2,641 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 849 new severe cases on Saturday. A total of 143 more people have died, bringing the total number of deaths in the country to 1,523.

There are 2,277 suspected new cases. The total number of confirmed cases across the country stands at 66,492, of which 11,053 – 18 per cent – are severe.

In Hubei province – epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak – 2,420 new confirmed cases were reported with 1,923 of those in provincial capital Wuhan. The city also accounted for 107 of the 139 new deaths reported in Hubei on Saturday.

Plasma and stem cell therapy possible treatments

Zhang Xinmin, director of the science and technology ministry’s biology centre, said the trial of convalescent plasma – taken from the blood of recovered Covid-19 patients – on 11 people with the virus had so far yielded positive results, with no side effects.

About 70 Shenzhen patients had also shown positive progress, with fewer side effects, to Favipiravir, an experimental antiviral drug. Meanwhile, Remdesivir, a US drug used to treat the Ebola virus, is being tested on 168 Wuhan patients presenting severe symptoms and 17 others with milder symptoms.

“We hope to introduce results of our clinical trials to our frontline medical staff as soon as possible,” Zhang said.

The Chinese government is also supporting research into stem-cell therapy as a potential treatment for the disease.

Zhou Qi, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said research was under way into the use of stem cell therapy and rheumatology medicines used to treat systemic inflammatory response syndrome (Sirs) which has been found in some patients.

Zhang said China was also researching different types of vaccines, some of which had entered the animal trial stage.

Zhang said China’s best scientists had been pulled together to develop effective clinical drug regimens aimed at improving recovery rates and lowering the number of deaths. A computer model has been built to screen more than 70,000 drugs, eventually shortlisting about 100 existing medications for further experiment.

Of those, Zhang said, chloroquine phosphate, an antimalarial agent, had responded well and was being tested on about 100 patients in Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong.

WHO experts assemble in China

A panel of experts from the World Health Organisation began to arrive in Beijing this weekend, ahead of an inspection visit which will include three provinces.

National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said the panel would see the outbreak prevention work in urban and rural areas, as well as look at laboratories and viral analytics work before making recommendations to China.

Medical response surpasses Wenchuan earthquake

National Health Commission deputy director Wang Hesheng said nine medical shelters had been opened to accommodate patients with mild symptoms, as well as people with suspected infections.

It was Wang’s first press conference since his arrival in Wuhan – provincial capital of Hubei where the novel coronavirus emerged – about a week ago.

Wang and Chen Yixin, secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Communist Party’s top law enforcement body, were sent to Wuhan in response to public uproar about the death of ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, widely regarded as a whistle-blower about the new virus.

Wang said that excluding military medical personnel, China had sent 25,033 medical professionals in 217 medical teams from across the country to Hubei. In all, 181 teams were dispatched to Wuhan and the rest to other cities.

Wang said the scale of medical help had surpassed the assistance given to Wenchuan in Sichuan province after the 2008 earthquake. He also pledged to make sure there was no “second Wuhan” in other cities or communities in the province.

Makeshift hospitals

Wang said more stadiums would be set aside for medical shelters to make sure all patients could be treated. So far, he said, existing medical shelters had 6,906 beds, of which 5,606 were occupied.

Jiao Yahui, deputy director of the NHC, said there would be no cross-infections in the medical shelters because only confirmed cases with mild symptoms were admitted to these makeshift hospitals. She said the approach was valid because “the cost is low but it is effective”.

She said that by sending patients with mild symptoms to these medical shelters, beds in conventional hospitals could be spared for serious cases.

Treatment for severe cases

Jiao said national, provincial and local experts were evaluating patients with a severe infection every day and developing treatment plans. In Jinjintan hospital and Wuhan Pulmonary Hospital, the discharge rate had reached 30-39 per cent, she said.

Jiao said 5,000 beds were available in hospitals designated for patients in a serious condition, adding that medical teams from other provinces were bringing medical equipment for severe cases with them when they were sent to hospitals.

Wang said more than half of the confirmed cases in Hubei were also being treated with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and TCM doctors had been taking part in prevention and cure at the community level, distributing herbal medicine among residents.

Lunar New Year travel slumps

Migration during China’s 40-day Lunar New Year holiday period decreased by 45 per cent compared to last year, according to the country’s transport ministry.

A total of 283 million trips were taken between January 25 and February 14 – a daily average of 13.48 million, and an 82.3 per cent fall on last year, said Liu Xiaoming, deputy director of the Ministry of Transport.

Liu said the traditional peak in travel at the end of the holiday period would not occur this year. With three days remaining until the end of the holiday travel period, he said he expected most travellers would be returning migrant workers and students going back to school.

Li Jian, deputy administrator of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, said airline passengers had taken 470,000 trips per day during the same period, a quarter of last year’s numbers for the holiday. Airlines had cancelled more than 20 million tickets, worth 20 billion yuan (US$2.86 billion).

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Li Wenxin, China Railway’s deputy general manager, said no peak was expected in rail travel either. Based on pre-sold tickets, he said the most sold in a single day was just one million – less than one-tenth of the number last year.

Li said he expected migrant workers to form the majority of rail travellers, about 56 million in total. Most have already returned, with 27 million yet to travel.

Rail passengers found to have a fever will be quarantined immediately by staff in special zones and over for medical examination at the next local station, Li said.

First case in Africa

Africa has reported its first case of coronavirus, in Egypt. The Egyptian health and population ministry, in a joint statement with the WHO, confirmed on Friday that a foreign national had been infected with the virus that has so far claimed more than 1,500 lives.

The patient, whose nationality and other personal details were not provided, is isolated in hospital and in a stable condition.

US will test people with flu symptoms for coronavirus

Health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said laboratory tests had returned a positive result for the virus, although the patient had no symptoms, raising concerns that people may be infected without showing any signs of the illness.

Megahed said the WHO was immediately informed, and all preventive measures were taken in cooperation with the global agency. “The case was transferred to a self-sterilised ambulance to the hospital for isolation, follow-up, and reassurance,” he said.

The WHO said its office in Egypt was working closely with local health officials in “outbreak investigation and response actions”.

Hubei reports 139 new deaths

A total of 2,420 new confirmed cases were reported in Hubei, with 1,923 of those in Wuhan. New deaths in Hubei numbered 139, of which 107 in Wuhan.

The province changed the diagnostic criteria used to confirm cases on Thursday, with doctors now having broader discretion to determine which patients are infected. The change in diagnostic criteria led to a spike in confirmed cases on Thursday, which were nearly 10 times more than the day before.

Of the new cases announced on Saturday, 1,138 were confirmed through clinical diagnosis including CAT scans and other tests, and 1,282 were confirmed through test kits.

Some 1,923 of the new cases were confirmed in Hubei’s capital of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated at a seafood and meat market.

As the Chinese government scrambles to contain the outbreak, the contagion has spread to at least 25 other countries, sickening more than 500 outside China.

Cash flow guaranteed as bank notes ‘quarantined’

Fan Yifei, vice-governor of the People’s Bank of China, said money supply in the country would be ensured, with 4 billion yuan in new bank notes already allocated to Hubei before the Spring Festival holiday.

Fan said the central bank would temporarily store bank notes from major government institutes or state enterprises in warehouses to prevent the disease spreading through the handling of cash. Banks have also been told to sanitise notes before giving them to enterprises.

Fan said cash from hospitals and wet markets was being stored and bank notes and coins sanitised with UV light before they were released back into circulation.

The movement of banknotes between major government institutions and enterprises has also been suspended in epidemic-hit areas in a further bid to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fan said the central bank had paid great attention to preventing the spread of disease via cash circulation and would also encourage people to use online banking services, e-shopping and online utility payments.

Fan said the bank was also ensuring the stable operation of the financial system in China. Clearing companies and financial institutes were cutting handling fees for donations to charitable organisations, he said.

No large-scale inflation: Central bank pledge

Fan said the epidemic would not cause large-scale inflation in China as the government was managing cash flow and the supply of commodities.

Liang Tao, vice-chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said the banking system has also set aside 537 billion yuan to provide credit support for local enterprises and government institutions to fight the epidemic. Banks had also been told to postpone business loan repayments.

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Liang said the banking system would expand loans, especially for the purchase of raw materials and equipment, to help enterprises resume production.

Banking regulators were also working to ensure the stability of the financial system although banks had been asked to give more flexibility to repayment of loans, he said.

Insurance coverage expanded

Liang also said 35 insurance companies had expanded more than 400 types of accidental and health insurance to include death, handicap and critical illness caused by the coronavirus.

In addition, 74 insurance companies have provided free insurance for medical staff fighting the outbreak, as well as their families and disease control staff, with a total insured sum of 9 trillion yuan.

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