Coronavirus may become ‘new flu’ but China ‘can weather’ economic storm

Jodi Xu Klein

China reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases on Thursday since January 23 when Wuhan – epicentre of the outbreak – went into lockdown, but a leading Chinese scientist has warned the disease may become an established illness like flu.

Wang Chen, president of the China Academy of Medical Science, said that despite the recent drop in the rate of new cases and fatalities on the mainland, the world should be prepared for the possibility that Covid-19 – the official name of the illness caused by the coronavirus – was here to stay.

Wang said the new coronavirus was different from the virus which caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which was both contagious and fatal. “This new coronavirus may become a long-term disease that coexists with humans, just like flu,” he told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday.

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It was up to scientists, he said, to be prepared to study the coronavirus for the long term, and help to devise clinical strategies. “The key to containing the virus should be in scientific research,” he said.

There were 394 new cases reported in mainland China, and a further 114 deaths, as of midnight Wednesday.

So far, the disease has killed 2,118 people on the mainland, out of a total of 74,576 confirmed cases. China’s National Health Commission reported that 1,779 patients had recovered by Wednesday, bringing the total number of people who have recovered from the disease to 16,155.

It was also the 16th straight day of a fall in new infections outside Hubei province. New infections in Hubei have now dropped for seven consecutive days.

Beijing’s worst hospital infection toll rises

Thirty six people have now tested positive in Beijing’s worst hospital infection.

The cluster outbreak in the hospital in the capital’s Xicheng district was first made public on February 3 when the local authority announced five medical staff and four patients in the Coronary Care Unit had been infected.

By Wednesday the hospital said the number infected had risen to 36, eight of whom were medical staff, nine hospital employees and 19 patients or their family.

The building where the unit was located was sealed off on February 5, according to Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients remaining in the building must be monitored for two weeks.

Two more foreign residents infected

Two more foreigners in mainland China have contracted Covid-19 since last Monday, a central government official said.

There are 29 foreigners with confirmed cases of Covid-19 in China so far, 10 of whom are in Hubei province, according to Ding Xiangyang, deputy-secretary general of China’s state council, told a press conference in Wuhan on Thursday.

Of the 29 cases, 18 people have recovered and nine are receiving treatment in isolation, while a US and a Japan citizen have died.

Too early for optimism, despite fall in cases

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the tapering off of infections in mainland China outside the worst-affected province indicated the measures taken to stop the spread of the disease were working.

“The heavy-handed containment measures appear to be effective in stemming the further spread of the virus outside Hubei province,” Huang said.

But Chen Xi, assistant professor of health policy and economics at the Yale School of Public Health, said it may be too early to conclude that infections had peaked. Measures to close down community neighbourhoods in Wuhan had just been implemented, and their effectiveness remained to be seen, he said.

“While there has been a decline in the number of new confirmed cases and suspected cases, the increase in new cases continues to add to the demand for medical resources, although the discharge of recovered patients can help release some of these. In other words, the demand for medical resources remains tight and we are still at a critical stage in this battle against the disease.”

Chen said the number of daily suspected cases, while falling, remained high.

China can weather economic storm

China has sufficient financial tools to weather the economic storm caused by the coronavirus outbreak, its finance ministry said on Thursday, as a new package of help for companies was announced.

Deputy finance minister Yu Weiping said the accumulated balance of the country’s social security fund in 2019 was 9.4 trillion yuan (US$1.3 trillion) and the latest relief measures – a waiver of company contributions – would reduce the fund by an estimated 600 billion yuan.

“Even if revenue to the fund falls, the overall impact is manageable,” he said.

More than a billion masks imported

China has so far imported over 1.2 billion masks to meet the soaring demand, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

The country has also purchased over 13 million sets of protective clothing, said Li Xingqian, director-general for foreign trade.

Beijing has already urged domestic producers to ramp up production of these items and some factories have also converted their production lines to help. The government economic planner said these firms had helped push production 10 per cent above normal capacity.

Advance funding to cover treatment costs

The National Health Commission said on Thursday that 17.2 billion yuan in advance funding had been allocated for the costs of treating Covid-19 patients, which would not be counted in the 2020 medical insurance budget.

Hubei received 3.01 billion yuan of the advance funding, with 902 million yuan of its allocation going to Wuhan.

“Looking at the treatment costs for confirmed and suspected cases so far, the advance funding can satisfy current medical needs," Xiong Xianjun, an administration official, said.

Australia extends ban on China arrivals

Australia will extend a ban on arrivals from mainland China into a fourth week to contain the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday.

“The National Security Committee of Cabinet has today decided that the continuing coronavirus infections in mainland China make it necessary to continue the travel restrictions on foreign nationals entering Australia for a further week to February 29,” Morrison said.

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Australia has 15 cases of the virus, but no new infections since the travel ban was put in place on February 1. Ten patients have recovered, while the other five are in a stable condition.

US issues travel advisory for Hong Kong

Travellers to Hong Kong have been warned by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to be prepared after the death of a second person in the city from the infection.

The agency put out a “level one” travel notice for Hong Kong advising visitors to avoid contact with sick people and to wash their hands often to avoid contracting the virus, which is spreading there from person-to-person.

This compares to the level four advisory the CDC has in place for Hubei, which means no one should travel there. The rest of mainland China is at level three, which means people should avoid non-essential travel.

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The CDC has listed Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam as other destinations outside mainland China with apparent community spread, but said the extent was not sustained or widespread enough to warrant a travel notice.

The public health institute defined community spread as “people [who] have been infected with the virus, including some who are not sure how or where they become infected”.

Some Wuhan patients waiting ‘too long’ for hospital

In an appearance on state broadcaster CCTV Wang Chen, head of China’s medical science academy, did not say whether the outbreak had reached its peak, saying only that measures should be taken to contain its spread.

Wang also said some patients in Wuhan were waiting too long for hospitalisation, which heightened the risk of spreading the virus. “The waiting period should be shortened,” he said.

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Diagnostic change continues to affect Hubei data

In Wuhan, provincial capital of Hubei, changes in diagnostic criteria continued to affect the number of reported cases. There were 615 new cases recorded, but the National Health Commission said the actual number was 359, after some cases were removed because of the diagnostic change.

Previously, Hubei, including Wuhan, also counted clinically diagnosed patients as confirmed cases. This changed on Wednesday with a new treatment plan, which will count only those who have tested positive in a laboratory test. The numbers were accordingly deducted in 10 cities, with the city of Jingmen in Hubei taking 107 previously confirmed cases from its records.

Hubei reported 108 new deaths – a fall on the previous day’s 132 – on Thursday, bringing the province’s total fatalities to 2,029. Provincial capital Wuhan, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated at a seafood and meat market, accounted for 88 deaths, the local health authority said.

The province also reported a sharp drop in newly confirmed cases at 349, compared with 1,693 on Wednesday. These figures raised the province’s total infections to 62,031 since December, when the illness was first reported.

Trump: Outbreak response will ‘work out fine’

US President Donald Trump said China's efforts to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak was “going to work out fine”, in a television interview late on Wednesday.

“I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along. I spoke to President Xi and they're really working hard at it,” he told Fox 10 Phoenix.

China donates test kits to Japan

China has donated nucleic acid test kits to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan, where more than 700 Covid-19 infections have been reported – at least 621 related to the stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship.

“The virus has no national borders and needs to be addressed by the international community,” a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Japan said on Thursday.

Excluding the Diamond Princess cases, Japan and Singapore – which reported 84 cases, as of noon on Thursday – have both experienced the highest number of infections from the coronavirus outside mainland China.

EU sends help to China, brings its cruise ship citizens home

The European Union is co-financing the repatriation of EU citizens from the Diamond Princess. Italy has sent an advance team to Japan and a second aircraft will leave tonight to repatriate EU citizens, the European Commission said.

The EU has also donated 12 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China, and repatriated more than 400 EU citizens from the country, on planes arranged by France and Germany.

Two coronavirus patients from Japan cruise ship die

“The EU continues to work 24/7 both to support our member states as well as China. We are currently working on dispatching further supplies to China in the coming days,” Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said.

The Italian medical team will evaluate EU passengers aboard the Diamond Princess, and only those who test negative for the virus or do not present any symptoms would be allowed to board the flight, the European Commission statement said.

China’s poor hardest hit by outbreak

The economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak is taking its toll on China’s poorest people as experts and the country’s leaders warned it could undermine its poverty reduction drive.

Coronavirus threatens to undermine China’s anti-poverty drive

Yu Shaoxiang, a social security and poverty relief expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said most of those battling poverty lived in rural China and their livelihoods had been severely affected by their local governments’ extreme lockdown quarantine measures.

“I have learned that a poultry farmer had to bury tens of thousands of chickens alive because he couldn’t buy poultry feed. Tangerine and strawberry farmers are watching their produce rotting away because there is no way to sell them,” Yu said.

Wang Yang, the Communist Party’s number four, this week told a group of political advisers that the outbreak was the “number one factor” affecting President Xi Jinping’s drive to eradicate extreme poverty by the end of this year.

Coronavirus leads to fall in China’s carbon emissions

China's efforts to contain the Covid-19 outbreak have resulted in carbon emissions falling by at least 100 metric tonnes over past two weeks.

A study published on Wednesday by a new independent organisation called the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said this compared to China’s release of around 400 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the same two-week period last year.

China’s factories face gruelling task of restarting virus-hit production

Chinese authorities extended the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January and delayed the reopening of businesses in a move to stop the spread of the virus. These efforts led to reductions of 15 to 40 per cent in output across key industrial sectors, according to the centre’s report.

But the study warned that the short-term reduction in carbon emissions may be offset by the Chinese government's planned stimulus measures in response to the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters

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