Beijing- The Chinese province at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in the death toll on Thursday under a new method for diagnosing cases, as health experts warned the epidemic could get worse before it gets better.
Health officials in Hubei province said 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December, and bringing the total number of deaths in the province to 1,310. The previous record rise in the toll was 103 on February 10.
The grim new tally came a day after China had reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by the country's senior medical adviser that the epidemic could end by April.
But the 2,015 new confirmed cases reported in mainland China on Wednesday were dwarfed by the 14,840 new cases reported in Hubei alone on Thursday, after provincial officials started using computerised tomography (CT) scans to look for infections.
Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process and delay treatment. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.
Using CT scans that reveal lung infections would help patients receive treatment as soon as possible and improve their chances of recovery, the Hubei health commission said.
The new diagnostic procedure also could lead to a spike in the death toll, according to Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
"Presumably, there are deaths which occurred in people who did not have a lab diagnosis but did have a CT. It is important that these also be counted," she told Reuters.
Under previous, stricter rules for identifying coronavirus cases, patients were often denied access to treatment or went undiagnosed.
The new testing methodology is only being used in Hubei province so far, Chinese officials said.
Asian stock markets wobbled and the safe-havens of the Japanese yen, gold and bonds rose after the new Hubei numbers dashed hopes that the epidemic was stablising and the Chinese economy could bounce back quickly.
Results from Chinese trials testing a combination of antiviral drugs used to treat HIV against the new coronavirus are due in weeks, but experts say a vaccine could still be months away.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned any apparent slowdown in the spread of the epidemic should be viewed with "extreme caution".
"This outbreak could still go in any direction," he told a briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen other countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, where a further 44 cases were reported on Thursday. So far, 219 of about 3,700 people on board have tested positive.
There was a happy ending for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which docked in Cambodia after being denied docking rights in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines over fears one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew might have the virus, even though none had tested positive.
"This morning, just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment," Angela Jones, an American tourist on the ship, told Reuters. "I thought: Is this real?"
The outbreak is suspected to have originated in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan in December. The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown, and other major Chinese cities are facing severe travel restrictions.
United Airlines said it would extend cancellations of all U.S. flights to China through late April, meaning all U.S. passenger carriers flying to China had now cancelled flights into late April.
The move is the latest disruption to international travel that has paralysed businesses and played havoc with major conferences and sporting events.
The Mobile World Congress, an annual telecoms industry gathering that draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona, was cancelled on Wednesday after a mass exodus by exhibitors due to coronavirus-related concerns.
Another big event to be cancelled, moved or postponed was the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, originally set for Shanghai on April 19.
Singapore's annual rugby sevens tournament due to take place in the city-state on April 11-12 would be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, a source familiar with the matter said.
Hong Kong extended the suspension of schools till at least March 16 in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the city, where 50 cases have been confirmed.