Coronavirus: cases have not yet peaked, Xi Jinping tells Politburo

Robert Delaney

The downtrend in coronavirus cases in China reversed on Friday after authorities reported hundreds of infections in prisons in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Hubei province revised up its daily new infections as of Thursday, from 411 to 631. The revision was made after health authorities received reports of the cases in the province's prisons, although 51 had already been included in the original daily count. Authorities did not change the death toll for the province.

The National Health Commission said there were 889 new cases and 118 new deaths as of Thursday, which – even without accounting for the prison infections – was a sharp increase from the 394 new infections reported a day earlier. The death count on Thursday was 114. The fluctuations show the difficulty in assessing if the epidemic is peaking, according to experts.

‘Peak not yet here’

Chinese President Xi Jinping said the coronavirus epidemic had not reached its peak despite a drop in the daily number of infections.

State broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as saying at a meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo on Friday that the situation in Hubei was still serious.

“The battles to defend Hubei province and Wuhan should be well fought, and measures should be taken to contain the spread of the outbreak,” he said.

The meeting also said prevention measures should be properly implemented in Beijing.

Prison cases prompt sackings

He Ping, director for prison administration at the Ministry of Justice, said on Friday that in Hubei province, there were 230 cases confirmed at Wuhan Women’s Prison, 41 confirmed and nine suspected cases at Hanjin Prison, and one case at the provincial centre for minors. Two prison officials were removed.

In Shandong province, there were 200 confirmed cases, and 10 suspected at Rencheng Prison, and in 34 confirmed cases in Zhejiang province’s Shilifeng Prison.

He added that cases were imported into prisons, and that there were no deaths in custody due to the virus. Prisoners with the disease were kept in isolation for treatment.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission has sent a team to investigate the Rencheng Prison cases.

The team is headed by commission deputy secretary general Lei Dongsheng, and includes officials from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice.

According to Shandong authorities, a prison guard at the Rencheng jail in Jining started coughing and showing other symptoms in early February. All 2,077 people held or working at the prison were given the nucleic acid test and, as of Thursday, 200 prisoners and seven prison officers had tested positive for the virus.

The provincial government said Xie Weijun, party secretary for Shandong’s department of justice, and seven prison officials had been sacked for mismanagement of the outbreak.

In southern Zhejiang province, 34 prisoners have been infected at Shilifeng jail. The provincial government said these were imported cases and two prison officials had been removed from their roles.

Crackdown on epidemic control defiance

Li Jingsheng, director of the Public Security Administration of the Ministry of Public Security, said police were cracking down frustrated citizens disrupting epidemic control measures.

“During the epidemic, we found some individuals who were airing their grievances and disappointment by spitting at members of the public, in lifts, on supermarket merchandise and even at medical staff,” Li said.

“Others have refused to ... wear any protective gear in public places, and have abused and beaten [workers carrying out control measures].”

Li said police nationwide had dealt with 274 cases of business illegally hoarding or inflating prices, and also uncovered 1,787 cases of the illegal acquisition, transport or sale of wild animals. Police have encountered 5,511 cases of “fabricating or intentional dissemination of false information”, 3,013 cases of using the epidemic to conduct fraud, and 722 cases of the manufacture or sale of fake or inferior drugs and other medical equipment.

As of Thursday, police had resolved 27,000 cases of “disputes” involving medical personnel, and handled 232 cases of injury or disturbance of medical staff.

Newly discharged patients exceed 2,000 for first time

For the first time the number of newly discharged patients exceeded the 2,000 mark. According to China’s National Health Commission, 2,019 patients had recovered as of Friday, bringing the total number of discharged patients to 18,264.

So far, there have been 2,236 deaths in mainland China from Covid-19 – the official name of the disease caused by the coronavirus – and 75,465 cases.

Recovered patients may still be infectious

In a grim assessment, a key Chinese respiratory disease expert described the situation of the epidemic as a “see-saw battle”, despite the drop in daily recorded cases in recent days.

“We should not be relaxed. The figure may go up again,” said Zhao Jianping, head of an expert team working to contain the outbreak in Hubei.

Zhao told the magazine Southern People Weekly there were cases in China in which recovered patients continued to show traces of the virus through nucleic acid tests. There were similar results in Canada, where nose and throat swabs taken from a couple who had recovered from Covid-19 revealed they still had traces of the virus.

“We also have such cases. This is dangerous. Where do you put these patients? You can't send them home because they might infect others, but you can't put them in hospital as resources are stretched,” he said.

Zhao said there were 27 patients when his team first went to a Wuhan hospital designated to treat infected people on December 30, and the number increased on January 10 with infections among medical workers.

“The number of patients has jumped from 27 to 70,000. It is highly contagious,” he said.

Vaccine clinical trials

The National Health Commission said on Friday that clinical trials of the first potential vaccine for Covid-19 could start in late April.

Clinical trials are usually the last stage before a pharmaceutical product is released on the market.

“Some vaccines have entered the animal testing stage. We estimate the earliest some vaccines can undergo clinical drug trials would be April or May,” Zeng Yixin, a health commission official, said.

Taiwan reports two new cases

The 40-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old granddaughter of a woman in Taipei who tested positive for the virus on Wednesday have also been infected, Taiwan confirmed on Friday.

The new cases bring to 26 the total number of infections in Taiwan, where one person has died and four others have recovered from the disease, according to health minister Chen Shih-chung.

Meanwhile, the 20 Taiwanese quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner will return to the island on Friday night. Chen said Taiwan was sending a plane to Japan to collect them.

Five other Taiwanese aboard the ship had tested positive for the virus and would remain in Japan for medical treatment, he said.

One more Hongkonger infected on Diamond Princess cruise, total at 66

Sharp decline in China trade growth predicted

Li Xingqian, head of the commerce ministry’s foreign trade department, said the growth rate for China’s imports and exports would decline sharply in the January-February period.

That was the result of poor logistics in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, the delayed start of work and the effects of the Lunar New Year break, Li said.

“The impact of the epidemic on the first quarter is here objectively, should not be underestimated, but is still within the tolerable range,” he told an online press conference on Friday.

Asian airlines set to lose US$27.8b as demand shrivels amid virus outbreak

Li argued the impact would be temporary and said the ministry remained confident of an optimistic outlook for foreign trade over the whole year.

“As the prevention and control [measures] achieve new staged results, foreign trade will inevitably resume its growth. China's foreign trade development is expected to remain within a reasonable range throughout the year,” Li said.

“The fundamentals for the long-term improvement of China's foreign trade have not changed. The competitive advantages of foreign trade are still here objectively. New trade formats have flourished. Foreign trade momentum remains strong.”

WHO experts ‘may’ visit Wuhan

Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said a stop in Wuhan for the World Health Organisation-led international mission now in China was “under consideration”.

Chen told a news conference that the spread of the coronavirus made a visit to Wuhan risky and would require a period of quarantine afterwards. However, he conceded that the experts would not have first-hand knowledge of the situation if they did not visit the city at the heart of the outbreak.

“I think the picture will be very much clearer in the days to come,” Chen said, adding that he had discussed medical shortages with the WHO's director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Coronavirus: WHO says more money is needed to battle ‘public enemy No 1’

Scale of pangolin trafficking revealed

About 895,000 pangolins are believed to have been trafficked worldwide in the past two decades, wildlife watchdog TRAFFIC said on Thursday, highlighting the challenge in tackling the illicit trade.

Researchers investigating the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak in China have said the endangered animal may be the link that facilitated the spread of the illness to humans.

As the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, pangolins are targeted for their body parts which are highly valued in traditional medicine in countries including China and Vietnam. The meat of the animals is also regarded as a delicacy.

The report noted that more than 96,000kg (210,000 pounds) of the creatures’ scales were seized in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam between 2017 and 2019 alone.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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