New coronavirus cases lowest since Jan. 31 in China province at outbreak's epicenter

OUTBREAK: A worker is seen inside a convenience store following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Feb. 11. Reuters

GUANGZHOU, China/GENEVA - The coronavirus outbreak in China may be over by April, the country’s senior medical adviser said on Tuesday, and the latest numbers of new cases may further feed that optimism.

Hubei, the province at the epicenter of the outbreak that has been under virtual lockdown, reported 94 people died and there were 1,068 new coronavirus cases as of Tuesday.

That is down from a peak of over 3,000 new cases on Feb. 4, and the lowest number of new infections since 1,347 were reported on Jan. 31.

But total deaths in China have surpassed 1,100 and the World Health Organization warned of a global threat potentially worse than terrorism.

The world must “wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters, adding the first vaccine was 18 months away.

China’s foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said numbers of new cases were falling in some provinces and forecast the epidemic would peak this month.

“I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April,” Zhong, an epidemiologist who played a role in combating an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, told Reuters.

World stocks, which had seen rounds of sell-offs over the coronarvirus’ impact on China’s economy and its ripple effects, surged to record highs on Zhong’s comments. The Dow industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit new peaks.

Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has already taken a toll on China’s economy, as companies began laying off workers and other firms said they would need loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for car manufacturers to smartphone makers have broken down.

Total cases of the new coronavirus in China have now surpassed 44,000, according to the WHO and Chinese health officials.

Statistics from China indicate about 2% of people infected with the new virus have died, many of them elderly or with prior medical conditions. But the spread of the virus, which can lead to pneumonia, has already caused widespread disruption.

St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said China’s economy was expected to “slow noticeably” in the first quarter and anyone pricing assets should for now consider the “tail risk” that the outbreak could get worse.

But Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said the financial spillover from the outbreak looked containable, though it was still early to judge the economic impact.

The WHO’s Tedros was less sanguine about the virus, now officially named COVID-19 - CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year it emerged. World health organizations wanted a name that did not refer to a location or animal.

“To be honest a virus is more powerful in creating political, social and economic upheaval than any terrorist attack,” he said. “It’s the worst enemy you can imagine.”

The impact of travel curbs, lockdowns and production suspensions is being felt increasingly on China’s economy.

JPMorgan analysts downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter and Norwegian energy consultancy Rystad Energy predicted the outbreak would cut growth in global oil demand by a quarter this year.

Inside China, more than 300 companies are seeking bank loans totaling $8.2 billion to help cope with the disruption, banking sources said.

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