The Chinese province at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in the death toll on Thursday under a new diagnostic method, and Beijing sacked two top provincial officials after criticism of their handling of the crisis.
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 taking the total number of deaths to more than 1,350. A total of 1,310 deaths have been reported from Hubei.
Asian stock markets wobbled and the safe-havens of the Japanese yen, gold and bonds rose after the new Hubei numbers dashed hopes the epidemic was stabilizing and the Chinese economy could bounce back quickly.
The spike in the death toll came a day after markets were cheered when China reported its lowest number of new cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by the country’s senior medical adviser that the epidemic could end by April.
Reports in state-run media said provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang had been sacked as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang had been removed as party chief in the provincial capital Wuhan.
The reports did not give a reason for the dismissals but the two are the most high-profile Chinese officials to be removed from duty following the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan late last year.
“Thank you Communist Party. It should have been done earlier,” Wuhan resident Wang You told Reuters.
Dozens of low-level health officials across the country have also lost their jobs for failing to contain the epidemic, which is believed to have emerged from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally.
Another 14,840 cases were reported in Hubei alone on Thursday, from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier, after provincial officials started using computerized tomography (CT) scans to look for signs of the virus.
About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority in China.
Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.
Using quicker CT scans that reveal lung infections would help patients get treatment more quickly and improve chances of recovery, the Hubei health commission said.
The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, according to Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
“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.
The new testing methodology is only being used in Hubei province, Chinese officials said.