Virus Outbreak: Death toll soars as China changes counting methods

Outside of Hubei, there were 12 more deaths, but the number of new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients.

China reported on Wednesday its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in almost two weeks, lending weight to a forecast by its foremost medical adviser for the outbreak to end by April - but a global expert warned it was only beginning elsewhere.

The 14,840 new cases in the Hubei Province were recorded because officials stopped using kits to diagnose patients and instead began counting patients who have been screened and identified by doctors, The New York Times reported.

Daily declines in new cases in Hubei earlier this week helped push USA equity markets to record highs on Wednesday.

China's Communist Party has replaced the party heads in the coronavirus-stricken province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan, state media said on Thursday, reporting the most high profile officials to lose their posts following the epidemic.

The change in counting method will renew concern over the effectiveness the tests now used to identify stricken patients globally, and raise questions over the true scale of the outbreak that has killed more than 1,300 people, all but two on mainland China.

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.

The shakeup represented the biggest political fallout yet from an outbreak that has in a little over two months shaken confidence in China's leaders and caused countries from the Japan to restrict or block visits by its citizens.

It also followed the sacking on Tuesday of two top health officials in Hubei - Zhang Jin, party chief of the Hubei Health Commission, and Liu Yingzi, provincial health commission director - over their flaws in responding to the epidemic.

"The number of newly confirmed cases reported from China has stabilized over the past week, but that must be interpreted with extreme caution", said WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Hong Kong, where 50 cases have been confirmed, extended the suspension of schools to March 16.

The developments came hours after President Xi Jinping claimed "positive results" from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed more than 1,350 people.

Previously, a nucleic acid test was needed to determine if a patient had caught coronavirus, a process which can last days.

As per the latest program, Hubei has carried out further checks on previous suspected cases and has revised the diagnosis results.

China on Thursday sent 1,400 military medical personnel to Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, official media reported.

"I'm not surprised that this has happened given the way the outbreak has been going in China", Woolhouse said. No cases of the viral illness have been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, according to operator Holland America Line.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 175 of about 3,700 people on board having tested positive.

Thailand refused to allow the Westerdam to dock this week after it had already been turned away by the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Guam over virus concerns.

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