GUANGZHOU/GENEVA (REUTERS) - The coronavirus outbreak in China may be over by April, the country's senior medical adviser said on Tuesday (Feb 11), but deaths surpassed 1,000 and the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of a global threat potentially worse than terrorism.
The world must "wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one", WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters, adding the first vaccine is 18 months away.
The disease caused by the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 is now officially named Covid-19.
As the epidemic squeezed the world's second-biggest economy, Chinese firms struggled to get back to work after the extended Chinese 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 manufacturers to smartphone makers ruptured.
China's foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Dr Zhong Nanshan, said numbers of new cases were falling in some provinces and forecast the epidemic would peak this month.
"I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April," Dr Zhong, 83, an epidemiologist who played a role in combating an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, told Reuters.
As of Tuesday, 1,110 people had died in China, where there were more than 42,700 cases.
Only 319 cases have been confirmed in 24 other countries and territories outside mainland China, with two deaths: one in Hong Kong and the other in the Philippines.
World stocks, which have seen rounds of selloffs because of the coronavirus' impact on China's economy and ripple effects round the world, surged to new record highs on Dr Zhong's comments.
Statistics from China indicate about 2 per cent of people infected with the new virus have died, and many had pre-existing medical conditions or were elderly. But the spread of the virus, which causes fever, cough and breathing difficulties, has already caused widespread disruption.
St Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said China's economy was expected to "slow noticeably" in the first quarter and anyone pricing assets should for now consider the "tail risk" that the outbreak could get worse.
But Bank of England governor Mark Carney said the financial spillover from the outbreak looked containable, though it was still early to judge the economic impact.
CHINA STILL IN 'EMERGENCY'
WHO's Dr Tedros was less sanguine about the coronavirus.
"To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, social and economic upheaval than any terrorist attack," he said. "It's the worst enemy you can imagine."
The impact of travel curbs, lockdowns and production suspensions is being felt increasingly on China's economy.
JPMorgan analysts downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter and Norwegian energy consultancy Rystad Energy predicted the outbreak would cut growth in global oil demand by a quarter this year.
Cisco Systems Inc, Facebook Inc, AT&T and Sprint Corp became the latest US technology companies to pull out of an international telecoms conference in Barcelona because of the outbreak. The organiser of the event, the telecoms industry's biggest annual gathering, will discuss whether to cancel it, an industry source said.
Inside China, more than 300 companies are seeking bank loans totalling 57.4 billion yuan (S$11.4 billion) to help cope with the disruption, banking sources said.
Prospective borrowers include food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp and ride-hailing provider Didi Chuxing Technology Co.
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 its roughly 20,000 workers.
The authorities said they would roll out measures to stabilise jobs.
The World Bank ruled out any new health loans to China, though technical assistance would be offered.
Hubei, where the flu-like virus emerged from a wildlife market in the provincial capital of Wuhan, remains in virtual lockdown, its stations and airports shut and roads blocked. But its health authority reported 2,097 new cases and 103 new deaths on Feb 10.
With public anger rising, Hubei's government dismissed the provincial health commission's Communist Party boss Zhang Jin, and director Liu Yingzi, state media said.
Washington, whose travel measures have offended Beijing, authorised the voluntary departure of US government employees and family members from Chinese-ruled Hong Kong "out of an abundance of caution", the State Department said.
Dr Anne Schuchat, an official from the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said she hoped the first group of Americans evacuated from Wuhan could be released from their quarantine on Tuesday.
Off Japan's port of Yokohama, the Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew remained quarantined, with the number of confirmed cases at 135.
Thailand said it had barred passengers from getting off another ship, Holland America Line's MS Westerdam, though no confirmed infections have been found on board.