China on Thursday touted a big drop in new cases of the coronavirus as a sign it has contained the epidemic, but fears grew abroad after two former passengers of a quarantined cruise ship died in Japan and a cluster of infections increased in South Korea.
The death toll in China hit 2,118 as 114 more people died, but health officials reported the lowest number of new cases there in nearly a month, including in the hardest-hit province, Hubei.
More than 74,000 people have been infected by the new virus in China and hundreds more in over 25 countries, with Iran reporting two deaths on Wednesday, the first fatalities in the Middle East.
In Japan, a man and a woman in their 80s who had been aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess died from the COVID-19 illness, authorities said, as fears mount about other passengers who disembarked after testing negative.
A cluster of novel coronavirus infections centred on a cult church in the South Korean city of Daegu leaped to 39 cases, as the country’s total spiked for the second successive day.
Chinese officials said this week that their drastic containment efforts, including quarantining tens of millions of people in Hubei and restricting movements in cities nationwide, have started to pay off.
“Results show that our control efforts are working,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a special meeting on the virus with Southeast Asian counterparts in Laos, citing the latest data.
“China’s forceful action has contained the spread of the virus inside China and also the spread of the virus to other parts of the world,” Wang said, adding that the country “has the capacity and determination to overcome this outbreak at an early date”.
‘Not turning point’
More than 600 new infections were reported in Wuhan — the lowest daily tally since late January and well down from the 1,749 new cases the day before.
“In Hubei, and particularly in Wuhan, the situation is significantly improving,” Wang said.
The national figure has now fallen for three days in a row.
Chinese authorities placed Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, under quarantine on January 23 and quickly locked down the rest of Hubei in the days that followed.
City authorities this week carried out a three-day, door-to-door search for suspected patients, with the local Communist Party chief warning that officials would be “held accountable” if any infections were missed.
Cities far from the epicentre have limited the number of people who can leave their houses for groceries, while villages have sealed themselves off from outsiders.
Richard Brennan, regional emergency director at the World Health Organization, said China was making “tremendous progress in a short period of time” but cautioned that it was not over yet.
“Trends are very encouraging but we are not at a turning point yet,” Brennan told a press conference in Cairo.
‘Chaotic’ cruise quarantine
While China touts progress in its fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, Japan’s government faces criticism over quarantine measures on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The huge vessel moored in Yokohama is easily the biggest coronavirus cluster outside the Chinese epicentre, with 621 cases confirmed among the passengers and crew — one sixth of the total.
On Wednesday, 443 passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative for the virus and not showing symptoms during a 14-day quarantine period. The complete removal of the passengers was expected to last at least three days.
More passengers left the ship on Thursday, packing into yellow buses and leaving for stations and airports.
But questions are being asked as to the wisdom of allowing former Diamond Princess passengers to roam freely around Japan’s crowded cities, even if they have tested negative.
The death of the two elderly passengers is likely to add to the criticism.
A specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University slammed “completely chaotic” quarantine procedures on board in rare criticism from a Japanese academic.
“The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of infection control,” said Kentaro Iwata in videos he has since deleted.
Japan’s health ministry insisted it had conducted “consultations on appropriate infection control in the ship” with experts and taken a range of measures.
In South Korea, the total number of cases rose to 82.
Almost half are linked to a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult.
She first developed a fever on February 10 but reportedly twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds that she had not recently travelled abroad, and she attended at least four services before being diagnosed.