Coronavirus Cases Surge as Beijing Blames Provincial Leaders

As businesses in China outside of Hubei return to normal operations, a new diagnostic method found thousands more infected.

Author: Anna Vodopyanova   

The easing of fears on the Wuhan-originated coronavirus proved to be temporary, as reports surfaced Wednesday evening that a new diagnostic test revealed many more cases of infection than originally reported. 

The coronavirus, which the World Health Organization labeled COVID-19, has taken 242 people just yesterday, according to Reuters citing the National Health Commission. Overall, the number of deaths has exceeded 1,300.

This was after Hubei province, the center of the epidemic, began to use CT scans to uncover lung infections instead of RNA testing, Reuters said. Using the new method, 14,840 cases were revealed – compared with Tuesday's 2,015.

In response, markets in Asia tumbled Thursday. The Shanghai composite ended down 0.71%, at 2,906.07 and Shenzhen fell 0.769% to about 1,771.61. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng Index slipped 0.34% to 27,730.00. Markets in Japan and South Korea also ended lower.

In the United States, the number of coronavirus cases reached 15, according to CNN. One U.S. citizen diagnosed with coronavirus died in Wuhan five days ago.

Businesses Urge Return to Operations

Just a week ago, markets were on the uptrend on promises of a fast-approaching end to the epidemic. On Monday this week, many businesses outside Hubei opened following an extended holiday that began on the week of the Chinese New Year. As the earnings period kicsk off, companies that earlier donated large sums to Hubei now urge markets to resume normal operations. The chief executive of Xiaomi Corp. (HKEX: 1810), Lei Jun, called for the smartphone industry to return to work at a product launch event on Monday. The company's sales have slowed in the third quarter and the demand is further expected to weaken. In the first quarter, as Reuters reported, smartphone shipments are expected to tank 40% from a year ago.

Trip.com Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: TCOM) also issued a statement this week, titled "Epidemic Containment Measures Must Not Impede Economy." James Liang, the chairman and co-founder of China's largest travel booking platform, released a statement on the relation of a country's life expectancy to GDP. After a lengthy discussion of the value of life and the costs needed to maintain life, Liang concludes by urging to adopt a "scientific and rational attitude in determining the most appropriate means of controlling and eradicating the epidemic," as well as to "give comprehensive consideration to social and medical resources, and strike a balance that is conducive to protecting lives."

Like other travel-related companies, the sales of Trip.com were among those most affected by COVID-19. Among various measures it took since the outbreak, Trip.com provided free booking cancellations to its clients. By Thursday afternoon, the stock in Trip.com in New York was down 2%, at $33.62 per American depositary share. Compared with its mid-January level of just below $39 per share; that's a 15% decline caused by the coronavirus.

Beijing Responds

With the sacking of two local senior officials – Jiang Chaoliang, the secretary of Hubei Province, and Wuhan's party boss Ma Guoqiang – Beijing has, not surprisingly, shifted blame from central leadership to provincial leaders.

Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed this week that he saw "positive results" in the fight to control the outbreak, as various media reported. He also vowed to "resolutely winning the people's war against pneumonia epidemic," as Xinhua News Agency wrote. The state-backed media currently is filled with optimistic reports of China's public uniting in the fight against the epidemic and descriptions of "differentiated measures" taken for the cause, such as nearly 3,000 additional medics sent to Wuhan.

The Chinese version of Xinhua posted an article on Thursday titled "Don't Be Scared by the Sudden Increase!". The report explained that the increase in coronavirus cases occurred as a result of the new standard of including "clinically diagnosed cases of infection into the number of confirmed cases." The newly adopted method reduces the time needed for diagnosis and effectuates the cut of the "infection chain," the news agency said.

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