China reported on Wednesday its smallest number of new coronavirus cases since January, lending weight to a prediction by its top medical adviser for the outbreak to end by April, but a global diseases expert warned of the spread elsewhere.
Financial markets took heart from the outlook of the Chinese official, epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who said on Tuesday the number of new cases was falling in some provinces, and forecast the epidemic would peak this month, even as the death toll in China rose to more than 1,100 people.
World stocks, which had seen rounds of sell-offs over the virus, surged to record highs on hopes of a peak in cases. The Dow industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit new highs, and Asian shares nudged higher on Wednesday.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the epidemic poses a global threat akin to terrorism and one expert coordinating its response said while the outbreak may be peaking at its epicentre in China, it was likely to spread elsewhere in the world, where it had just begun.
"It has spread to other places where it's the beginning of the outbreak," the official, Dale Fisher, head of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the WHO, said in an interview in Singapore.
"In Singapore, we are at the beginning of the outbreak."
Singapore has reported 47 cases and worry about the spread is growing. Its biggest bank, DBS, evacuated 300 staff from its head office on Wednesday after a confirmed coronavirus case in the building.
Hundreds of cases have been reported in dozens of other countries and territories around the world, but only two people have died outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday the world had to "wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one" and the first vaccine was 18 months away.
In China, total infections have hit 44,653, health officials said, including 2,015 new confirmed cases on Tuesday. That was the lowest daily rise in new cases since Jan. 30.
The number of deaths on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday.
But doubts have been aired on social media about how reliable the figures are, after the government last week amended guidelines on the classification of cases.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan's port of Yokohama, with about 3,700 people on board. Japanese officials on Wednesday said 39 more people had tested positive for the virus, taking the total to 175.
One of the new cases was a quarantine officer.
Thailand said it was barring passengers from another cruise ship, MS Westerdam, from disembarking, the latest country to turn it away amid fears of the coronavirus, despite no confirmed infections on board.
"We try to stay hopeful," American passenger Angela Jones told Reuters in a video recording. "But each day, that becomes a little bit more difficult, when country after country rejects us."
Echoing the comparison with the fight against terrorism, China's state news agency Xinhua said late on Tuesday the epidemic was a "battle that has no gunpowder smoke but must be won".
The epidemic was a big test of China's governance and capabilities and some officials were still "dropping the ball" in places where it was most severe, it said, adding: "This is a wake-up call."
The government of Hubei, the central province at the outbreak's epicentre, dismissed the provincial health commission's Communist Party boss, state media said on Tuesday, amid mounting public anger over the crisis.
China's censors had allowed criticism of local officials but have begun cracking down on reporting of the outbreak, issuing reprimands to tech firms that gave free rein to online speech, Chinese journalists said.
The pathogen has been named COVID-19 - CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year it emerged. It is suspected to have come from a market that illegally traded wildlife in Hubei's capital of Wuhan in December.
The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown as part of China's unprecedented measures to seal infected regions and limit transmission routes.
Travel restrictions that have paralysed the world's second-biggest economy have left Wuhan and other Chinese cities resembling ghost towns.
Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has taken a toll of China's economy, with companies laying off workers and needing loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for makers of items from cars to smartphones have broken down.
ANZ Bank said China’s first-quarter growth would probably slow to 3.2% to 4.0%, down from a projection of 5.0%.
The likely slowdown in China could shave 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points off both euro zone and British growth this year, credit rating agency S&P Global estimated.