By David Kirton and Stephanie Nebehay
GUANGZHOU, China/GENEVA (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections in China may be over by April, its senior medical adviser said on Tuesday, but the death toll passed 1,000 and the World Health Organization warned of a “very grave” global threat.
As the epidemic squeezed the world’s second-biggest economy, Chinese firms struggled to get back to work after the extended Lunar New Year holiday, hundreds of them saying they would need loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat.
Company layoffs were beginning despite assurances by President Xi Jinping that widespread sackings would be avoided, as supply chains for global firms from car makers to smartphone makers ruptured.
China’s foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said numbers of new cases were falling in some places and held out hope the epidemic may peak this month.
“I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April,” added Zhong, 83, an epidemiologist who won fame for his role in combating an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, in an interview with Reuters.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday 1,017 people had died in China where there were 42,708 cases.
World stocks resumed rising towards record highs on Zhong’s comments on Tuesday and the dollar reached a four-month high.
But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was less sanguine as he appealed for the sharing of virus samples and speeding up of research into drugs and vaccines.
“With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world,” Tedros told researchers gathered in Geneva.
Only 319 cases have been confirmed in 24 other countries and territories outside mainland China, according to WHO and Chinese health officials, with two deaths, one in Hong Kong and the other in the Philippines.
For graphic comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2GK6YVK
For more Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2GVwIyw
JPMorgan (NYSE:) again downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter, with its analysts saying the outbreak had “completely changed the dynamics” of its economy, where travel curbs, lockdowns and production suspensions have forced many out of work or to work from home.
More than 300 Chinese companies are seeking bank loans totalling 57.4 billion yuan ($8.2 billion) to help cope with the disruption, banking sources said.
Prospective borrowers include food delivery giant Meituan Dianping (HK:), smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp (HK:) and ride-hailing provider Didi Chuxing Technology Co, the sources said.
Chinese firm Xinchao Media said on Monday it had laid off 500 people, or just over a tenth of its workforce, and restaurant chain Xibei said it was worried about how to pay the wages of its roughly 20,000 workers.
Authorities said they would roll out measures to stabilise jobs, in addition to previously announced cuts to interest rates and fiscal stimulus designed to minimise any downturn.
Analysts at investment bank Nomura said evidence suggested the virus had “a devastating impact on China’s economy in January and February”.
“We are concerned that global markets thus far appear to be significantly underestimating the extent of disruption,” they said in a note.
Hubei, where the flu-like virus emerged from a wildlife market in the provincial capital of Wuhan in December, reported 2,097 new cases and 103 new deaths on Feb. 10, its health authority said.
Public anger over the handling of the outbreak has been rising and Hubei’s government dismissed the provincial health commission’s Communist Party boss, Zhang Jin, and director Liu Yingzi, state media said.
Hubei remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and roads blocked.
The virus has caused chaos in Asia, and spread alarm beyond, with many flights suspended and entry restrictions imposed.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew remained quarantined in Japan’s port of Yokohama, with the number of confirmed cases from the Carnival Corp-owned (N:) vessel at 135.
Thailand said it had barred passengers from getting off another Carnival Corp ship, Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam, even though no confirmed infections have been found on board.
“Now we are back in limbo,” passenger Stephen Hansen told Reuters by email.