BEIJING/TOKYO--The Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands more infections using a broader definition on Thursday, while Japan became the third place outside mainland China to suffer a fatality.
The epidemic has given China's ruling Communist Party one of its sternest challenges in years, constrained the world's second largest economy and triggered a purge of provincial bureaucrats. With China's streets, restaurants and flower markets bare, a miserable Valentine's Day was expected on Friday.
Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death - a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo - adding to two previous fatalities in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Japan is one of the worst affected of more than two dozen other countries and territories that have seen hundreds of infections from the flu-like sickness.
The Japanese woman fell ill in January but only later showed symptoms of pneumonia and was hospitalised, with coronavirus confirmed after her death and the contagion route under investigation, the health minister said.
However, the big jump in China's reported cases reflects a decision by authorities there to reclassify a backlog of suspected cases by using patients' chest images, and is not necessarily the "tip of an iceberg" of a wider epidemic, a top World Health Organization official said on Thursday.
Mike Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme, said that more than 14,000 new cases reported in Hubei province overnight came after a change to include results from quicker computerised tomography (CT) scans that reveal lung infections, rather than relying just on laboratory tests to confirm cases. "We've seen this spike in the number of cases reported in China, but this does not represent a significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak," Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.
The biggest cluster of infections outside China is on a cruise liner now quarantined off a Japanese port and a further 44 cases were reported on board on Thursday, raising the total to 219. But authorities said some elderly people would finally be allowed to disembark on Friday. "Outside the cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship we are not seeing a dramatic increase in transmission outside China," the WHO's Ryan said.
He added that the main U.N. health agency expected the rest of a special WHO team to arrive in China over the coming weekend to investigative the epicentre of the epidemic.
U.S. President Donald Trump praised China over its response and said Washington was working closely with Beijing. "I think they've handled it professionally, and I think they're extremely capable," Trump said in a podcast broadcast on iHeart Radio.
But Trump's top White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was more critical. "We're a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese, these numbers are jumping around... there was some surprise," he told reporters.
In central China's Hubei province, officials said 242 people died on Wednesday, the biggest daily rise since the flu-like virus emerged in the provincial capital Wuhan in December. Total deaths in China are 1,367.
The rise, following a forecast earlier this week by China's senior medical adviser that the epidemic might end there by April, halted a global stocks rally. But it appeared largely due to the change in methodology. Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing identification of viruses.
But it has also begun using CT scans of lungs, the Hubei health commission said, to pinpoint and isolate cases faster. As a result, another 14,840 new cases were reported in the province on Thursday, up from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier. But excluding cases confirmed using the new methods, the number of new cases rose by only 1,508.
About 60,000 people have been infected in total, the vast majority of them in China.