Japan has announced its first death from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, taking the global total to 1,710.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato said the victim was a woman in her 80s who had been in hospital since 1 February, when she was diagnosed with pneumonia, with the COVID-19 diagnosis coming after her death.
The woman was a resident of Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo, but officials have refused to comment on Japanese media reports that she was the mother-in-law of a taxi driver who is also a confirmed case.
There have now been two deaths outside China, with the other coming in the Philippines, with the vast majority of confirmed cases and fatalities still restricted to Hubei province – the epicentre of the outbreak.
On Wednesday night, more than 14,800 new cases of the COVID-19, the disease which is caused by the coronavirus, were reported in Hubei.
Health officials there also confirmed 242 new deaths from the flu-like virus – the fastest rise since the pathogen was identified in December.
The latest global figures:
- More than 14,800 new cases and 242 deaths have been confirmed in China’s Hubei province, which is the epicentre of the outbreak
- Hubei alone now has 48,206 confirmed cases, most in the city of Wuhan, with 33,693 being treated in hospital, and 5,647 of them said to be critically ill
- There have been 60,363 confirmed cases worldwide and 1,370 deaths – all but two in China, with one in Japan and one in the Philippines
- Forty-four more people on board the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess, which is docked in Japan, have tested positive for COVID-19
- There are now 218 confirmed cases from the cruise ship – the biggest cluster outside China
There had been optimism that the number of infections was beginning to slow down, with China having reported its lowest number of new COVID-19 cases in two weeks on Tuesday.
Despite the apparent spike, the World Health Organisation has played down fears that it represented a major shift in the trajectory of the outbreak.
Officials said the increase was “largely down to a change in how cases are being diagnosed and reported”.
Doctors in China can now make clinical diagnoses based on chest imaging, rather than wait for laboratory confirmation, allowing for cases to be confirmed more quickly.
It also means suspected cases from previous days and weeks, including some going right back to the end of December, are now being included in the latest updates from Hubei.
It means figures from Hubei – including those from Wednesday night – now include confirmed laboratory cases and suspected cases based on the chest imaging tests.
In other developments:
Global markets had surged to record highs when Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese medical adviser who played a role in combating the SARS outbreak in 2003, predicted that COVID-19 cases will peak this month.
The latest figures from Hubei province will spark fears that an end to disruption in the world’s second-largest economy is far from over.
One health expert has warned that countries around the world are only at “the beginning of the outbreak”.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than 20 countries, but only two people have died from COVID-19 outside of China to date.
And Dr Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s emergency programme, has cautioned that it is too early “to predict the beginning, the middle or end of the epidemic”.
Vaccine could be months away
Tests have been taking place to see whether antiviral drugs used to treat HIV are effective against the coronavirus – however, results are only expected in a few weeks.
The WHO has held a two-day meeting aimed at speeding up the development of tests, drugs and vaccines for the new virus, but experts have warned that treatments may be months away.
Across China, more than 60 million people have been affected by an unprecedented lockdown.
Cruise ship docks
A cruise ship turned away by five countries over fears that someone on board has the coronavirus has docked in Cambodia after two weeks at sea.
The MS Westerdam arrived early on Thursday morning – and one passenger on board said “just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment”.
Passengers on board the ship have been subjected to regular health checks throughout the troubled journey.
Even though no one on board has fallen ill, the ship was denied permission to dock by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand.