The number of coronavirus-related deaths has soared to record highs in China’s Hubei province - the epicentre of the outbreak.
Health officials confirmed that some 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December, and taking the total number of deaths to more than 1,350.
But the rise comes after officials in Hubei province began using a new diagnostic test to look for signs of the virus.
One expert believes the new procedure could explain the spike in deaths.
At the same time, World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday the number of cases of infection in China had stabilised but it was too early to say the epidemic was slowing.
“This outbreak could still go in any direction,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing in Geneva.
Reports in state-run media said provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang had been sacked as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang had been removed as party chief in the provincial capital Wuhan.
The reports did not give a reason for the dismissals but the two are the most high-profile Chinese officials to be removed from duty following the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan late last year.
“Thank you Communist Party. It should have been done earlier,” Wuhan resident Wang You told Reuters.
Dozens of low-level health officials across the country have also lost their jobs for failing to contain the epidemic, which is believed to have emerged from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally.
What is the new test?
Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.
Using quicker CT scans that reveal lung infections would help patients get treatment more quickly and improve chances of recovery, the Hubei health commission said.
The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, according to Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
“Presumably, there are deaths which occurred in people who did not have a lab diagnosis but did have a CT. It is important that these also be counted,” she told Reuters.
The new testing methodology is only being used in Hubei province, Chinese officials said.
Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs and preliminary clinical trial results are weeks away but a vaccine could take 18 months to develop.
Another 14,840 cases were reported in Hubei alone on Thursday, from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier, after provincial officials started using computerised tomography (CT) scans to look for signs of the virus.
About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority in China.
This comes as a case of coronavirus was diagnosed in London for the first time on Wednesday. Health authorities confirmed a ninth person in the UK has tested positive for the virus.
Virology expert John Oxford suggested that people stop hugging each other as concerns heighten around the virus spreading.
“What we need to do is less of the hand-shaking, hugging, kissing and all that sort of a thing because this virus looks like it’s spread by ordinary tidal breathing, not necessarily sneezing and coughing,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen other countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
Forty-four more people have tested positive for the coronavirus known as Covid-19 on board a quarantined cruise ship off Japan, authorities have said.
The country’s health ministry said 218 people of the 713 tested on board the Diamond Princess have been infected by the virus.
The ship, which is still carrying more than 3,500 passengers and crew members, returned to the Yokohama Port on February 3 and has been in quarantine since.
“Just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment,” Angela Jones, an American tourist on the ship, told Reuters. “I thought: Is this real?”
Japan has 247 confirmed cases of the new disease that apparently started in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December.