BEIJING – Changes in the way coronavirus patients are diagnosed in China have seen the number of infections shoot up by 15,000 while officials also reported 254 deaths in 24 hours, the largest one-day increase since the outbreak began last month.
The numbers were concentrated in the province of Hubei, the epicenter of COVID-19, where 242 people died and 14,840 were confirmed to be infected with the virus.
The jump in figures saw the number of coronavirus cases in China jump to 59,805, a 30 percent increase from Wednesday.
The news sparked concerns that the outbreak could be worse than originally thought as the death toll climbed to 1,367 in China.
Hubei’s health commission said it had employed new diagnostic techniques which in effect includes suspected cases.
Until now the patients were confirmed by a series of tests, performed with equipment that was scarce in the province.
The results of those tests take several days to come back.
Although provincial authorities have not provided any more details about the new criteria for accounting for patients, the new measures will allow “patients to receive timely treatment,” the commission said in a statement.
The record number of cases announced by Chinese authorities on Thursday came a day after officials recorded an apparent slowdown in the disease transmission.
Two professors from the University of Hong Kong, experts in epidemics and pathogens, told a conference of international media in Beijing that the change in diagnostic techniques was a move in the right direction although quickly lamented the fact the timeline of these new infections was unclear.
“It makes a lot of sense including the probable cases in the criteria, it’s a sensible move to modify them but is good to change them now,” Benjamin Cowling, co-director of the Center of Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong, said.
Cowling added that he expected the outbreak to peak at the end of the month.
John Nicolls, Associate Professor in Pathology at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the team that in 2003 managed to isolate the SARS virus, said: “No test is totally accurate.”
“This virus has not the same death rate as SARS or MERS had, it is lower,” he added.
“It’s very difficult that the virus could be so many days in the body without being recognized by the immune system.”
Both professors cast doubt on a statement by Chinese researchers on Wednesday that the virus had an incubation period of 24 days suggesting it would likely be lower.
“It’s very difficult that the virus could be so many days in the body without being recognized by the immune system,” Nicolls said.
As the number of cases shot up, so did the number of local officials losing their jobs.
The head of the Communist Party in Hubei Jian Chaoling was replaced Thursday by the former mayor of Shanghai Ying Yong who is close to the President Xi Jinping.
He was the latest in a slew of regional officials to be dismissed over their handling of the outbreak.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday officially named the disease COVID-19, while the virus which causes it has been called SARS-CoV-2 (changed from its provisional name 2019-nCoV) by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.
The organization said “CO” stands for “corona,” “VI” for “virus, “D” for “disease” and “-19” for “2019” – as the outbreak was first detected on 31 December.
COVID-19’s symptoms are in many cases similar to those of a cold but may be accompanied by fever, fatigue, dry cough and dyspnea (shortness of breath).