Coronavirus outbreak: senior US official accuses China of lack of transparency

Top White House official Larry Kudlow questions approach of Politburo as China brings in &wartime* measures in more cities

US expresses 'disappointment' in China's response to coronavirus 每 video

A senior White House official has called on Beijing to be more transparent over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak as Chinese authorities expanded ※wartime§ measures to limit its spread.

※We are a little disappointed that we haven*t been invited in and we*re a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese,§ said Larry Kudlow, the director of the US National Economic Council.

His comments came after Chinese authorities said they had altered how they count cases, resulting in confusion amid dramatic changes to the reported figures for two days in a row, and dampening hopes that the outbreak may peak later this month.

On Thursday, Hubei officials reported a large spike in cases after including those confirmed by CT scans, not just lab tests. The revision added 254 deaths to the overall Chinese toll.

Then on Friday, China added 121 new deaths 每 but also removed 108 fatalities from the total, due to what China*s National Health Commission said were ※duplicate statistics§.

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In its latest update, the commission reported 121 new deaths and 5,090 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of people infected to more than 64,000 worldwide, with 63,851 of the cases in China.

The death toll stands at 1,383 每 with three of those deaths outside of mainland China, one in Hong Kong, one in Japan and one in the Philippines.

The commission did not give further explanation of the double-counted cases on Friday.

※Based on the current trend in confirmed cases, this appears to be a clear indication that while the Chinese authorities are doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the fairly drastic measures they have implemented to date would appear to have been too little, too late,§ said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is the virus causing the illness that started Wuhan?

The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples 每 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China*s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere. As of 12 February there are now 45,182 confirmed cases and 1,115 deaths. There are cases in 28 other countries outside China, with deaths recorded in one case in Hong Kong, and one case in the Philippines. The number of people to have contracted the virus overall could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected.

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK has doubled from four to eight after four more people in Brighton were diagnosed with the infection over the weekend.

There are nine cases of the virus in the UK. Four were located in Brighton, one in London. At Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside 83 people in quarantine were told they would be allowed to leave on Thursday after they all tested negative. Of the 1,750 tests carried out so far in the UK, more than 99% had been negative.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don*t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won*t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP*s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is ※the worldwide spread of a disease§. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO*s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a ※window of opportunity§ to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

Chinese authorities also announced that 1,716 health workers had been infected as of 11 February. Six had died. Officials on Friday, responding to questions about how those cases are counted, said that when asymptomatic patients show symptoms during quarantine they would be included as confirmed.

While public health experts have greeted the change in reporting 每 in order to capture more cases and get more patients needed treatment 每 positively, others say it raises more questions about the data. The change in diagnostic criteria has been applied only to Hubei province.

※Is the politburo really being honest with us?§ Kudlow asked, referring to communist China*s top leadership body. Kudlow said President Xi Jinping had assured Donald Trump that Beijing would accept US help, but ※they won*t let us§.

※I don*t know what their motives are. I do know that apparently more and more people are suffering over there,§ he said.

At a meeting of senior leaders in Beijing on Thursday, officials called for other areas to ※adopt quarantine and rescue measures equal to that of Wuhan§, which has been under lockdown for the past three weeks. The meeting, chaired by the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, called on Wuhan to speed up classifying and quarantining residents suspected or confirmed of contracting the virus.

In Huanggang, one of the worst-hit areas outside of Wuhan with more than 2,000 cases and at least 59 deaths, authorities issued an emergency measures for 14 days, ※fully sealing§ all residential areas and banning vehicles, except for those for emergency, medical or official purposes.

Checkpoints would be set up and public security deployed to enforce the measures. Local district committees are to organise residents* food and supplies. ※All residents must not enter or leave their communities without authorisation,§ the notice said.

Q&A

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit 每 but not eliminate 每 the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

In Dawu county in central Hubei, home to more than 600,000 people, officials also issued an emergency notice on Thursday afternoon that residential areas and buildings would be sealed and vehicles banned. Those who violate the rules ※will be detained, according to wartime regulations§. ※In extraordinary times, extraordinary actions are needed,§ the notice said.

In Zhangwan district in Shiyan city, authorities placed similar restrictions and said public security would help enforce the measures. Gucheng county and Yunmeng county also implemented the same measures for a period of 14 days.

On Friday, China*s ministry of finance said the country was earmarking 80.5bn yuan (?8.5bn) for fighting the epidemic. So far, about half of that has been spent.

Researchers at China National Biotech, a state-owned company, said that human antibodies from survivors had helped patients who were critically ill, prompting calls for recovered patients to donate blood plasma.

Michael Smith (@MikeSmithAFR)

I have been put under Home quarantine for 14 days after returning to Shanghai. For my neighbours, only 1 person per household is allowed out once a day. Some renters are being denied access to their homes. This is a city increasingly in lockdown. #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/UMEmbTa8PN

February 14, 2020

The next few weeks are critical for judging whether quarantine measures have worked, and as residents return to work in major cities. Officials said this year would not see a ※peak§ in return journeys after the lunar new year holiday and that all parts of the country should ※continue protection and control measures§.

Containing the coronavirus in Wuhan, where the virus emerged in December, is still of ※utmost importance§ in order to achieve ※economic and societal development§ this year, officials said.

Outside China, one person died in Japan from the virus on Thursday night. Japan*s health ministry said a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, west of Tokyo, had died. She had been transferred between hospitals as her condition worsened and she was confirmed to have had the coronavirus after her death.

Her death was the third fatality from the virus outside mainland China.

Meanwhile, the US state department expressed deep concern about North Korea*s vulnerability to the outbreak. The statement comes as Pyongyang scrambles to strengthen quarantine and preventive measures.

North Korea has yet to report a case of the virus, but state media reports have hinted that an uncertain number of people have been quarantined after showing symptoms. Experts say an epidemic in North Korea could be dire because of its chronic lack of medical supplies and poor healthcare infrastructure.

Passengers on a cruise ship that spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over coronavirus fears started disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.

The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked in the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville on Thursday. The Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, greeted the passengers with handshakes and bouquets of roses as they stepped off the ship and boarded a waiting bus.

Additional reporting by Pei Wu Lin