BEIJING: The number of deaths and new cases from China’s coronavirus outbreak spiked dramatically on Thursday after authorities changed the way they count infections in a move that will likely fuel speculation that the severity of the outbreak has been under-reported.
The hard-hit central province of Hubei reported 242 deaths in just one day and 14,840 new patients — by far its biggest one-day tally since the crisis erupted last month.
The jump raised the death toll to 1,355 and the total number of nationwide infections to nearly 60,000 — just hours after President Xi Jinping touted “positive results” from the government’s drastic measures to contain the virus and a top Chinese expert predicted the epidemic would peak this month.
Officials in Hubei said they were broadening their definition for COVID-19 cases by including people “clinically diagnosed” with the virus in the daily tally.
This means officials can use lung imaging on suspected cases to diagnose the virus, rather than the standard nucleic acid tests.
China has placed some 56 million in virtual quarantine in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, since late last month and restricted movements of millions more in cities far from the epicentre in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
Xi chaired a meeting of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee on Wednesday after figures showed that the number of new cases had dropped for a second straight day.
China has been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the SARS virus.
But it has faced continued scepticism among the global public, with suggestions that there may be similarities with the way it dealt with the 2002-2003 outbreak.
Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak in early January because they were holding key political meetings at the time.