Progress against coronavirus in China as new cases wane in epidemic hot zone

Gigi Choy

Signs of progress against the coronavirus epidemic emerged in China on Friday with epicentre Hubei province reporting no new cases of infection outside the provincial capital and scientists pointing to advances in the development of vaccines and drugs.

In Beijing, Zheng Zhongwei, director of the National Health Commission’s Science and Technology Development Centre, said China was moving full steam ahead to develop vaccines for the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 90,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide.

“Our different approaches [to vaccines] are steadily advancing and [we are] following national laws and regulations [in our development],” Zheng said. “According to our estimates, we are hopeful that in April some of the vaccines [that are being developed] will enter clinical research or they would be of use in emergency situations.”

Under national regulations, vaccines developed for major public health emergencies can be deployed for urgent use under specified conditions, if the National Medical Products Administration considers that the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks.

A sense of optimism was evident among Chinese officials as they outlined plans to ease draconian lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the disease, which has been reported in more than 80 countries around the world since it erupted in Wuhan, the provincial capital, in December.

In Wuhan, Ding Xiangyang, deputy secretary general of the State Council, said he was confident that the control measures would end soon but he stopped short of giving a specific date.

“When I left home this morning, I saw that the cherry trees outside were blooming,” said Ding, a member of a special task force sent by Beijing to Hubei to oversee the containment of the disease. “This tells us that winter is over and spring is here.

“I am confident the day that everyone is waiting for will not be too far away.”

Chibi, a centre of about 500,000 people in the province’s southeast, said in a notice on Thursday that it would remove all checkpoints within the city on Friday morning.

But roadblocks to stop traffic between Chibi and neighbouring centres and measures to restrict movement within residential compounds would stay in place, authorities said.

While China remained the most seriously hit country by the coronavirus, South Korea is also grappling with a surge in cases, with 6,593 confirmed cases and 42 deaths so far.

Iran announced 1,234 new infections and 17 deaths on Friday, bringing the country’s total of confirmed cases to 4,747 and the death toll to 124.

In Germany, the number of confirmed cases has tripled since Tuesday, bringing the country’s total to 534. Meanwhile, an 86-year-old man in the Netherlands became the country’s first fatality from the virus.

Bhutan, Cameroon and Serbia were among the countries to report their first cases.

As the disease spreads, the development of vaccines is being closely watched around the world. Several vaccines are being studied globally, but one of the fastest moving is a synthetic messenger RNA, or mRNA, nucleic acid vaccine developed by biotechnology company Moderna Therapeutics.

It was created just 42 days after the coronavirus, called Sars-CoV-2, was sequenced by Chinese scientists in January.

Moderna shipped out the first batch of its vaccine for the first phase of human trials in February and said it planned to start the clinical trial in April. So far there is no licensed mRNA vaccine in the world.

Separately, a drug that inhibits immune system response called Tocilizumab, also known as atlizumab, has been added to the latest edition of China’s national diagnosis and treatment plan. The drug has been on the market since 2005.

Zhou Qi, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said clinical trials were continuing after positive results from preliminary use of the drug on a small group of patients in China with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

In the trial of 20 patients, 19 were in a serious condition and discharged within two weeks of receiving treatment. A patient in critical condition improved and was in serious condition, Zhou said.

The World Health Organisation has said that the antiviral drug remdesivir developed by Gilead Sciences in the United States might be the most promising drug for treating the coronavirus. China is also working with Gilead on tests for remdesivir.

Benjamin Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, said the latest statistics showed China has been successful in containing the virus.

But it would need to remain vigilant to prevent a second wave of infections, he warned.

Mainland China saw 17 new infections recorded on Thursday, of which 16 were brought in from overseas. The country has a total of 36 imported cases.

“It looks like China has successfully brought its first wave of infections to an end. It now needs to be alert to the start of its second wave, given that cases will continue to be imported from other affected countries,” Cowling said.

While China may be near a turning point, the situation needs to be monitored as life began to return to normal, said Gregory Gray, professor of infectious diseases at Duke University in North Carolina.

“I hope this is a turning point for Hubei,” Gray said. “Perhaps it is good to see what happens as China slowly returns to routine activities.”

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang

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