Chinese expert says coronavirus may peak soon as death toll surges past 1,000

China’s coronavirus outbreak may peak soon, a prominent Chinese expert said on Tuesday, as the death toll soared past 1,000 and worry grew about the true extent of economic disruption to the world’s second-largest economy, reports Reuters. Companies struggled to get back to work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, while hundreds of Chinese firms said they would need loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. 

Layoffs also began, despite assurances by President Xi Jinping that widespread sackings would be avoided. The government’s top medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, held out hope that the epidemic may peak in February and then plateau before easing.

“The peak time may be reached at the ... middle or late this month,” Zhong, an epidemiologist who won fame for his role in combating an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, told Reuters in an interview. The number of new cases was already declining in some provinces, he added.

The National Health Commission said earlier another 108 people had died on Tuesday, a daily record, taking to 1,016 the total of those killed in China.  All but five of the deaths were in the central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak.

There were 2,478 new confirmed cases on the mainland by Monday, down from 3,062 the previous day, bringing the total to 42,638.  It was the second time in two weeks that authorities recorded a daily drop in new cases. Asian stock markets rallied as investors took comfort from the lower figures, even though some experts have warned it is too early to assume they represent a trend.

Underlining the danger, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the outbreak was very much an emergency for China but also posed a “very grave threat for the rest of the world”. He was speaking at the opening of a two-day meeting of 400 researchers in Geneva aimed at stepping up research into diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.

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. On the economic front, JPMorgan again downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter, with its analysts saying the outbreak had “completely changed the dynamics of the Chinese economy”.

More than 300 Chinese companies are seeking bank loans totalling 57.4 billion yuan ($8.2 billion) to help cope with the disruption caused by locked down cities, closed factories and crippled supply lines, two banking sources said. Prospective borrowers include food delivery giant Meituan Dianping (3690.HK), smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp (1810.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.