China registered 29 deaths from the coronavirus on Wednesday, the lowest in a day in nearly a month, as its top epidemiologist sounded hope that the country could curb the outbreak by the end of April.
The death toll is a marked improvement from the day before, when 52 deaths were reported. The epidemic has killed 2,744 people in China, mostly in Hubei province.
Dr Zhong Nanshan, the country's leading infectious disease expert, said China's swift intervention, such as locking down the epicentre Wuhan, helped prevent the outbreak from erupting in other cities.
He had earlier predicted that the epidemic would peak in mid to late February. Meanwhile, the number of infected cases has been falling since Feb 15, he said at a news conference yesterday.
"We are confident the epidemic would basically be under control by late April," he added.
Dr Zhong, who is director of the National Clinical Research Centre for Respiratory Disease, also said the number of infections could have been lower if the authorities had acted earlier, and called for more power to be given to the local divisions of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These branches report to the local government, which decides how to handle an outbreak.
Chinese scientists had identified the new pathogen on Dec 31, and isolated the virus strain on Jan 3. A report was made to the local and national CDCs on Jan 7, said Dr Zhong, who heads an expert task force to battle the coronavirus.
"But our CDC's status is too low. It is a technical department, and its significant role has not been given enough attention. The CDCs of many countries are directly connected to the central government and can even make public announcements directly."
It was not until Jan 20 that President Xi Jinping made his first public comments on the outbreak, the same day Dr Zhong confirmed that the virus was being spread through human contact.
Yesterday, Dr Zhong also suggested that while the outbreak first appeared in China, the virus may not have originated there.
Meanwhile, reports that a prison in Wuhan released an infected inmate who later travelled to Beijing has caused an outcry and prompted Beijing to send in an investigation team.
Netizens were outraged that the 61-year-old female inmate, who had completed her sentence, managed to slip through the city's lockdown, which has been in force for a month.
Beijing health officials said the woman is now being treated at a hospital. She was among 300 or so inmates infected in the prison.
Last week, prisons in Hubei, Shandong and Zhejiang provinces reported outbreaks totalling over 500, leading to the dismissals of their officials.
In a meeting on Wednesday, Mr Xi warned officials not to rest on their laurels, even as numbers have improved overall. The situation in Hubei "remains complex and grim, and the risk of a rebound of the epidemic in other regions cannot be overlooked", official news agency Xinhua reported him as saying.
Mr Xi and his six top lieutenants made personal donations to fight the coronavirus, which has reportedly cost the country over 100 billion yuan (S$20 billion). Xinhua did not report how much each of the leaders gave.