Some 242 new deaths have been recorded in Wuhan. The number of deaths in Hubei on Wednesday was 107 – a new high for the province.
There was also a huge increase in the number of cases, with 14,840 people diagnosed with the virus.
Hubei has started using a broader definition to diagnose people – which accounts for most of the rise in cases.
China sacked two top officials in Hubei province hours after the new figures were revealed. The Communist Party secretary, Jiang Chaoliang, has been replaced by the Shanghai party chief, Ying Yong, according to state media. The party chief of the capital city, Wuhan, has also been relieved of his duties.
Until Wednesday’s increases, the number of people diagnosed in Hubei – where the outbreak emerged – was stabilizing.
But the new cases and deaths in the province have pushed the national death toll above 1,350 – with almost 60,000 infections in total. China has been accused of suppressing the full extent of the outbreak in the past
Professor David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “What has happened in China is that they have changed the definition of what the disease really is – now they are taking people who have lesser symptoms.
“The deaths are quite worrisome, there are an increased number of deaths reported, but if you look overall at the total number of deaths and the total number of cases, the fatality ratio is about the same as it has been – but it is still high, as high as the death rate in influenza.”
Only Hubei province – which accounts for more than 80% of overall Chinese infections – is using the new definition to diagnose new cases.
The province’s 14,840 new infections include 13,332 clinically diagnosed cases.
Overall, the province now has 48,206 confirmed infections.
The WHO said it was “way too early” to predict the end of the epidemic. “This outbreak could still go in any direction,” the director-general warned.
Four possible vaccines were being funded for pre-clinical development, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told reporters.
“I think we will find a vaccine,” she said. “It will take some time. A vaccine cannot be made overnight.”
Meanwhile, a cruise ship carrying more than 2,000 people has docked in Cambodia after it was turned away by five ports over fears that some passengers might be infected with the virus.
The MS Westerdam arrived on Thursday morning after Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, and Thailand had all refused to accept the ship – despite having no sick patients on board.
Another 44 cases have been confirmed on the Diamond Princess, which is in quarantine in Yokohama, Japan.
The increase means 218 people of the 3,700 people on board the ship have caught the virus. Not everyone has been tested yet.
People with the virus are taken to hospitals on land to be treated, while those on board are largely confined to their cabins.
The Diamond Princess will remain quarantined till the 19th of February.
In other developments:
Australia has extended its ban on people coming from mainland China for another week, to 22 February from 15 February
Hong Kong’s most high-profile sports event, the Rugby Sevens, as well as the Singapore Sevens, are expected to be postponed
China said it would stagger the return of children to school. Several provinces have closed schools until the end of February
In Vietnam, which borders China, thousands of people in villages near the capital, Hanoi, have been put under quarantine after several cases of the virus were discovered. Vietnam has now confirmed at least 16 cases of Covid-19
Russian police are searching for a woman who absconded from coronavirus quarantine by short-circuiting an electric lock. Alla Ilyina said on Instagram she had tested negative in three tests in St Petersburg and could not see why she should stay
North Korea has doubled the quarantine period for those entering the country to 30 days as it takes emergency measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus (no cases have yet been detected).