By Reuters, AFP, and Analou De Vera
BEIJING/GENEVA/TOKYO – China on Wednesday reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since late January, lending credence to a prediction from the country’s senior medical adviser that the outbreak could be over by April.
Global markets took heart from the outlook but international experts remain alarmed by the spread of the flu-like virus which has now killed 1, 113 – all but two in mainland China and infected 44,600 others.
China’s foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said the 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 whose previous forecast of an earlier peak turned out to be premature, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Total cases of the new coronavirus in China have now hit 44,653, according to Chinese health officials, including 2,015 new confirmed cases on Feb. 11. That was the lowest daily rise in new cases since Jan. 30.
While Chinese health officials said the situation was under control, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the epidemic posed 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 on Tuesday, adding the first vaccine was 18 months away.
On Tuesday WHO announced that “COVID-19” will be the official name of the deadly disease from China, saying the disease represented a “very grave threat” for the world but there was a “realistic chance” of stopping it.
“We now have a name for the disease and it’s COVID-19,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva.
“Co” stands for “corona”, “vi” for “virus” and “d” for “disease”, while “19” was for the year, as the outbreak was first identified on December 31.
“Under agreed guidelines between WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” Tedros said.
“Having a name matters so as to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,” said Ghebreyesus.
WHO had earlier given the virus the temporary name of “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease” and China’s National Health Commission this week said it was temporarily calling it “novel coronavirus pneumonia” or NCP.
Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika – where those diseases were first identified and which are now inevitably linked to them in the public mind.
WHO also notes that using animal species as name can create confusion, such as in 2009 when H1N1 was popularly referred to as “swine flu.”
This had a major impact on the pork industry even though the disease was being spread by people rather than pigs.
People’s names — usually the scientists who identified the disease – are also banned, as are “terms that incite undue fear” such as “unknown” or “fatal”, the WHO said.
In a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland broadcasted live on the official Twitter page of WHO, Tedros said the development of a possible vaccine is underway and might be available in 18 months.
No specific treatment or vaccine against the virus exists, and WHO has repeatedly urged countries to share data in order to further research into the disease.
“That is especially true in relation to sharing of samples and sequences. To defeat this outbreak, we need open and equitable sharing, according to the principles of fairness and equity,” Tedros told the conference that gathered 400 scientists for a two-day meeting in Geneva to review how the virus is transmitted and possible vaccines against it.
“We are not defenseless,” Tedros said, adding: “If we invest now… we have a realistic chance of stopping this outbreak.”
He said he hoped the scientists could agree a roadmap “around which researchers and donors will align.”
Several teams of experts in Australia, Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States are racing to develop a vaccine – a process that normally takes years.
WHO experts are also seeing more evidence linking COVID-19 to bats.
“Serological studies conducted in rural population living close to bats’ natural habitat in caves revealed a 2.9-percent bat-CoV seroprevalence, demonstrating that humans’ exposure to bat-CoVs might be common,” the report read.
But how the virus is transmitted to human remains unclear.
Bats are rare in markets in China, but are hunted and sold directly to restaurants for food, it noted.
“The current most likely hypothesis is that an intermediary host animal has played a role in the transmission,” the WHO said.
The WHO said identifying the animal source of the COVID-2019 would help “ensure that there will be no further future similar outbreaks with the same virus and will also help understand the initial spread of the disease in the Wuhan area.”
“It would also increase our understanding of the virus and help us understand how these viruses jump from animals to humans,” it added.
Cruise ship trouble
As Beijing scrambles to contain the virus, the number of people infected on a cruise ship off Japan’s coast rose to 174 – the biggest cluster outside the Chinese mainland.
“Out of 53 new test results, 39 people were found positive,” Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters, bringing the total of cases on board to 174. In addition, a quarantine officer was also found to be infected with the virus.
The ship has over 3,700 passengers and crew on board.
Kato added that: “At this point, we have confirmed that four people among those who are hospitalized are in a serious condition, either on a ventilator or in an intensive care unit.”
The Diamond Princess has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast early last week after the virus was detected in a former passenger who got off the ship last month in Hong Kong.
Those who remain on the ship have been asked to stay inside their cabins and allowed only briefly onto open decks — as long as they wear face masks. (With a report from Vanne Elaine P. Terrazola)