By Kevin Yao and Min Zhang
BEIJING (Reuters) – The global coronavirus pandemic could be over by June if countries mobilize to fight it, a senior Chinese medical adviser said on Thursday, as China declared the peak had passed there and new cases in Hubei fell to single digits for the first time.
Around two-thirds of global cases of the coronavirus have been recorded in China’s central Hubei province, where the virus first emerged in December. But in recent weeks the vast majority of new cases have been outside China.
Chinese authorities credit strict measures they have taken, including placing Hubei under near total lockdown, with preventing big outbreaks in other cities, and say other countries should learn from their efforts.
“Broadly speaking, the peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission. “The increase of new cases is falling.”
Zhong Nanshan, the government’s senior medical adviser, told reporters that as long as countries take the outbreak seriously and are prepared to take firm measures, it could be over worldwide in a matter of months.
“My advice is calling for all countries to follow WHO instructions and intervene on a national scale,” he said. “If all countries could get mobilized, it could be over by June.”
Speaking to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, President Xi Jinping similarly expressed confidence, state television reported.
“After hard work, China has shown a trend of continuous improvement in epidemic prevention and control,” the report cited Xi as saying.
“I am confident that the Chinese people will be able to overcome this epidemic and achieve their intended economic and social development goals.”
Zhong, an 83-year-old epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said viruses in the same family typically became less active in warm months.
“My estimate of June is based on scenarios that all countries take positive measures.”
Later on Thursday, Zhong held a teleconference with a group of U.S. medical experts, including from Harvard University, state television reported.
Zhong and his team shared their experiences of quickly testing and containing the virus, difficulties in treatment, and cooperation in clinical research, the report added.
The United States is now facing its own virus crisis as the number of infected people rises.
With the marked slowdown of the spread of the virus in China, more businesses have reopened, with authorities cautiously easing strict containment measures.
Hubei province announced a further loosening of travel restrictions and will also allow some industries to resume production.
Hubei’s economy, driven by manufacturing and trade, including a sizable auto sector in the provincial capital, Wuhan, had been virtually shut down since Jan. 23.
While the virus is spreading quickly globally, its progress in China has slowed markedly in the past seven days. In all, 15 new cases were recorded in mainland China on Wednesday, down from 24 the day before. Seven of the new cases were outside Hubei, including six imported from abroad.
While only 85 of the cases in China have come from abroad, the rising number of such incidences has prompted authorities to shift their focus on containing the risk of imported cases.
The total number of cases recorded in mainland China was 80,793. As of Tuesday, 62,793 people had recovered and been discharged from hospital, or nearly 80% of the infections.
In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, 34,094 patients had been discharged from hospitals, but over half were still under observation at so-called “recovery stops” – quarantine venues repurposed from hotels and student dormitories.
Hubei’s health authority said the post-discharge quarantine was a precautionary measure, after a few discharged patients tested positive again.
As of the end of Wednesday, the death toll in mainland China had reached 3,169, up by 11 from the previous day. Hubei accounted for 10 of the new deaths, including seven in Wuhan.
China is focusing on restarting factories and businesses hit by the containment policies. Factory activity plunged to its worst level on record in February, and while more businesses have reopened in recent weeks as containment measures have been eased, analysts do not expect activity to return to normal until April.
Airlines have been hit particularly hard. China’s airlines reported total losses of 20.96 billion yuan ($3 billion) in February. The total number of airline passengers fell 84.5% year-on-year last month, China’s aviation regulator said.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Se Young Lee, Lusha Zhang, Stella Qiu, David Stanway, Cate Cadell, Gao Liangping, Engen Tham, Judy Hua and Kevin Yao; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel, Toby Chopra and Nick Macfie)