Coronavirus updates: WHO experts head to Wuhan, epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as cases continue to climb

●Chinese leader Xi Jinping heard that the situation in Wuhan remains “remains grim and complex.”

●South Korea and Japan both reported a sharp spike in cases Saturday, with the total number of infections rising to 346 and 111 respectively.

●China reported only 397 new cases on Saturday, as the rate of increase continued to decline, but another 109 have died. There continues to be a great deal of skepticism about China’s numbers as the criteria for diagnosing coronavirus keeps changing.

●There are new indications that the incubation period for the virus could be longer than the currently believed 14 days, with patients testing positive after much longer periods of quarantine.

●Scientists in China said they had isolated coronavirus strains in urine, raising the possibility that it might be transmissible that way, in addition to through fecal matter and respiratory droplets.

BEIJING — A team of experts from the World Health Organization was due to arrive in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, on Saturday, amid an increasingly urgent effort to stop the epidemic from spreading in northeast Asia and across the world.

South Korea and Japan both reported a sharp spike in cases Saturday, while in China, another 109 people died. There were also new indications that the incubation period for the virus could be longer than the currently believed 14 days, and scientists in China said there were indications the virus might be transmissible through urine.

The window of opportunity to contain the spread of the coronavirus was closing, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization said Friday after cases were reported in Iran and Lebanon.

“Although the window of opportunity is narrowing to contain the outbreak, we still have a chance to contain it,” he told reporters in Geneva. “If we don’t, if we squander the opportunity, then there will be a serious problem on our hands.”

A WHO team of experts has been on an investigative mission in China this week, holding meetings in Beijing and traveling to the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong. But they had not been scheduled to travel to Wuhan, where the outbreak began at a wet market and which remains under strict lockdown in an effort to contain the virus.

This had led to speculation that the Chinese government, which has come under fire for its slow response to the outbreak and where medical workers are stretched to the limit, did not want the experts to visit.

But the WHO said late Friday that the experts would be traveling to the epicenter of the outbreak on Saturday, although they gave no further information about their itinerary.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has not visited Wuhan since the outbreak began, heard that the situation in the city and in surrounding Hubei province “remains grim and complex,” according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency published Saturday.

“The nationwide inflection point of the epidemic has not yet arrived,” the report said after a meeting of Communist Party leaders.

China’s National Health Commission reported Saturday that 397 new cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed Friday, taking the total to more than 76,000. The rate of infection outside Hubei appears to have slowed markedly, although there has been a great deal of confusion about the statistics this week as officials have repeatedly changed the criteria for confirming cases.

Among the new cases discovered Friday were a 70-year-old man in Hubei who was confirmed as infected after 27 days in isolation, while a man in Jiangxi province tested positive after 14 days of centralized quarantine and five days of isolation at home. On Thursday, authorities reported that a man in Hubei had been tested positive for coronavirus after what appeared to be a 38 day incubation period with no symptoms.

Coronavirus cases in South Korea jump 11-fold in a week; cases triple in Japan

In Seoul, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Saturday that 142 additional cases of the coronavirus had been detected, taking the national tally to 346, an 11-fold jump from the beginning of the week.

“Apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, [South] Korea now has the most cases outside China, and we’re working closely with the government to fully understand the transmission dynamics that led to this increase,” Tedros said.

About two-thirds of the newly reported cases are linked to an existing cluster at a hospital in Cheongdo county, south of the city of Daegu, and the majority of the remaining cases are linked to a church in Daegu, according to the KCDC.

The South Korean government has designated Daegu and the surrounding province as “special care zones” and is concentrating its containment and support efforts there.

In Japan, the number of coronavirus cases rose to 111 on Saturday, more than tripling in a week. That number excludes the 634 people on board the Diamond Princess who contracted the virus.

One of the latest cases was a teacher in her 60s at a public junior high school east of Tokyo, who complained of nausea while working. The mayor of Chiba city said the school will be closed until Wednesday, public broadcaster NHK reported.

The teacher had not traveled abroad in the past two weeks and has no record of having been in contact with a known infected person, underlining the fact that the virus is now spreading almost invisibly throughout the country, experts say.

Efforts to clear the Diamond Princess cruise ship continue

Meanwhile, tests are continuing on the crew members on board the Diamond Princess. At least 74 crew members have so far been found to have the virus.

All of the passengers have now been tested and almost all have left the ship, either to go home if they tested negative, to local hospitals or government facilities if they have the virus, or back to their home countries.

Some passengers were asked to stay on board to serve an additional quarantine if their cabin mate contracted the virus, but this group are also disembarking on Saturday to serve out the rest of their quarantine in a government facility, local media reported.

More than 200 port calls in Japan by international cruise ships have been canceled since the beginning of February due to the coronavirus outbreak, a Kyodo News survey showed Saturday, with the lost revenue from passengers coming ashore dealing another blow to Japan’s weak economy.

Controversy continues to simmer about the infection control procedures on board the ship, after a doctor complained on Tuesday about “chaotic” and scary conditions on board.

Six people working on the boat or with the passengers, including four government officials, a medic and an ambulance driver, have contracted the virus. Media reports questioned why government officials who worked on the ship have returned to work without taking a coronavirus test themselves.

Chinese scientists isolate coronavirus strains in urine

Separately, scientists in China are continuing to study how the virus is transmitted.

A research team led by renowned Chinese pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan had isolated live coronavirus strains in urine samples from infected patients, Zhao Jincun, a respiratory expert at the State Key Laboratory, told reporters in Guangdong on Saturday.

The team of scientists had previously said that the virus, in addition to being carried in respiratory droplets, appeared to be transmissible through fecal matter, underscoring the need to practice good handwashing as a preventive measure.

Zhao did not directly say that the virus could be transmitted through urine, simply saying that the strains had been isolated and that this had implications for public health control. They are continuing to work on isolating the virus and on a cure, the Guangzhou Daily reported.

Lyric Li in Beijing, Min Koo Kim in Seoul, and Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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