China’s official death toll and infection numbers from COVID-19 epidemic spiked dramatically on Thursday, with Hubei, the epicentre reporting 242 new deaths.
Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected with the virus, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.
The jumps raised the death toll to 1,355 and the total number of nationwide infections of the virus — officially named COVID-19 — to nearly 60,000.
Authorities said the revised numbers arose as they changed their counting methods. But the change only fuelled concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.
Meanwhile, two top-ranking politicians overseeing the epicentre of the outbreak were also sacked, adding to questions over China’s handling of the crisis, just hours after President Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” in battling the outbreak. Few days earlier, Hubei’s two top health officials were also sacked.
The World Health Organisation also quickly countered Chinese reassurances that the epidemic, which has now officially killed more than 1,350 people in China, would peak in a matter of weeks.
“I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies programme.
The virus has had massive ramifications globally since emerging from the central Chinese province of Hubei last month, with many countries banning travellers from China in a bid to stop people spreading the disease.
Hubei authorities said the huge increases were because they had broadened their definition for cases to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.
Until now, authorities had been documenting cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.
The commission said it looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting that older cases were included in Thursday’s numbers.
About 56 million people in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, are being banned from leaving as part of the quarantine efforts.
Tens of millions of others cities far from the epicentre are also enduring travel restrictions.
China had been praised by the World Health Organization for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS virus epidemic in 2002-2003.
But it has faced continued scepticism among the global public, and US officials have also called for more openness from China’s Communist Party rulers, leading to fears that there may be similarities with the way it dealt with SARS.
Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak in late December and early January.
The death of an infected doctor who had tried to raise the alarm about the outbreak in December, but was silenced by authorities, triggered an outpouring of anger in China.
Analysts said Hubei’s new methodology to count infections might be for medical reasons and could be because Xi wants officials to be more transparent, but the immediate impact was to sow more distrust.