Coronavirus Wednesday Update: China Gradually Gets Back to Work in Face of Worker, Material Shortages
China is grappling with an outbreak of infections from a new coronavirus that began in December. Caixin Global will continue covering this story as it develops. Please check back regularly for updates.
Caixin’s coverage of the new coronavirus
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 11:45 p.m.
Business activity around China is gradually picking up after a Lunar New Year holiday that was extended to curb the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, but difficulties ranging from disrupted supply chains to contagion controls still face business owners.
More than half of major industrial enterprises in manufacturing hubs including Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shanghai have resumed operations, an official (link in Chinese) at the National Development and Reform Commission said Wednesday.
Companies in oil refining, nonferrous metals and food processing have largely resumed production while makers of face masks, an important piece of protective gear in the outbreak, are running at full capacity, according to the economic planner.
But many smaller companies still face difficulties having enough workers return to the factory floor in addition to ensuring sufficient supplies of materials because of nationwide traffic controls for epidemic prevention, Caixin learned.
To help businesses get back on track, several provinces and cities have partly removed transportation restrictions to control the outbreak. Since Feb. 16, Jiangxi, Guizhou and Hangzhou in Zhejiang have announced resumption of major road transit to ensure normal business operations.
Cluster infection forces closure of Chongqing factory
Many factory owners face a dilemma between the urgent need for business recovery and potential contagion risks for returning workers. A metal factory in Chongqing was forced to close after a cluster infection among workers was reported.
At least three workers at a titanium plant owned by a subsidiary of Panzhihua Iron and Steel were confirmed with the viral infection. More than 100 workers were placed under quarantine, according to the Chongqing city government.
Worker shortages and supply disruptions hinder business recovery
• In other parts of the economy, worker shortages and logistics disruptions continue squeezing businesses. A container shipping company executive said slow turnover at ports has affected business as many containers are stuck at ports.
Meanwhile, port operators are struggling to hire enough people to load and unload cargoes. More than 90% of truck drivers in port cities Shanghai and Ningbo have yet to return to work, leaving a huge shortage for port transportation, according to a truck service company.
• Putian city in Fujian province encouraged local manufacturers to shift production to protective facial masks in response to surging demand in the fight against the coronavirus. A manager at Fujian New Yifa Paper Products Co., a producer of diapers, said the company spent 200,000 yuan ($28,556) to retool its production lines to make facial masks.
But shortages of materials and workers still constrain the factory’s production, the manager said.
• Hot pot chain Haidilao International Holding Ltd. is leading the recovery of China’s hard-hit catering industry. The company resumed delivery services in several cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenzhen and Nanjing since Feb. 15, nearly a month after it closed all of its 700 restaurants nationwide.
The business closure could slash the Hong Kong-listed company’s annual revenue by 6.1 billion yuan, according to an estimate by CSC Financial Co.
IMF remains positive on global outlook
Despite damage from the outbreak, the International Monetary Fund said it sees a rebound in global growth this year.
Worldwide economic growth is expected to “moderately strengthen” in 2020, according to the IMF, though it warned that the coronavirus is one of the main risks that could derail the outlook.
“Monetary and fiscal policy actions were instrumental in supporting activity, thus avoiding a deeper downturn,” the IMF said Wednesday in a surveillance note.
Compiled by Han Wei
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 6 p.m.
The way China identifies coronavirus cases is set to change once again, after the nation’s top health body issued new guidelines for diagnosing the disease that include the use of a newly developed antibody tests.
More than 1,000 people outside of China have now been diagnosed with the disease, in part due to its rapid spread on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which began disembarking passengers in Japan on Wednesday. The global caseload of Covid-19 passed 75,000 on Wednesday.
Meanwhile South Korea’s count continued to grow as authorities there investigated a troubling church cluster.
China overturns previous change to diagnostic criteria with strict new guidelines
China's top health authority has released a sixth edition of its diagnostic criteria for Covid-19, which reverses a change in the fifth edition released last week that allowed cases in Hubei to be diagnosed clinically, such as via chest X-rays.
As Caixin reported then, the change caused the number of new recorded cases to spike by almost 14,000 overnight, with the provincial government saying the change would help ensure patients were treated promptly. Speaking at the time, local doctors raised concerns about false negatives from laboratory testing.
Under the new guidelines, traditional nucleic acid tests (NATs) will be used to diagnose cases. To address concerns about false negatives, the new guidelines emphasize the use of sound sampling procedures to safeguard the accuracy of the tests, and suggest using multiple NATs alongside new rapid antibody screening tests developed by Guangzhou Medical University under the guidance of Zhong Nanshan (link in Chinese).
The new guidelines also raise the possibility of aerosol transmission in closed environments.
China talks up strategic partnership as Russia bans its citizens
China has played down the impact of Russia’s decision to ban its citizens from entering the country, one of the strongest measures taken by any nation to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
While many countries have instituted travel bans based on whether individuals spent time on the Chinese mainland within the previous 14 days, Russia announced Wednesday it was indefinitely banning all Chinese citizens from entering the country, according to the Moscow Times.
A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a regular press briefing today that Russia had informed China in advance of the ban, and that that while China was following the developments, “We have also noted that Russia has expressed its support and offered a lot of help to us. China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners of coordination for a new era.”
Other coronavirus news:
• Hong Kong's unemployment rate surged to a three-year high of 3.4% and consumption plunged in the city as the Covid-19 outbreak exacerbated the economic impact from months of protests.
• South Korean authorities are continuing to investigate the possible presence of a “super-spreader” after a cluster of cases emerged today at a church in Daegu, a city 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) southeast of Seoul. They identified five additional cases on Wednesday after adding 15 this morning, bringing the total there to 51, the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said.
Fifteen of the 20 cases added on Wednesday were contacts of a woman local media have dubbed “Case 31” — 14 attended her church, while one came into contact with her at a hospital. The Korea Herald has identified “Case 31” as a 61-year-old South Korean woman who was diagnosed with the infection on Tuesday. More than 1,000 people in the country are being tested for the disease.
• The number of coronavirus cases on the Diamond Princess, a cruise liner recently quarantined off Japan that began to disembark passengers on Wednesday, climbed by 79, according to the Japanese health ministry. A total of 621 people on board the cruise have been confirmed to be infected with the disease — more than any country aside from China. The Hong Kong government has arranged chartered flights to fly residents on board the ship back to Hong Kong. Multiple nations have made arrangements to evacuate their own citizens once they disembark.
• Sportswear-makers Adidas and Puma said Wednesday that store closures and depressed tourism were hurting their China business, Reuters reported. Adidas said its business in the Greater China region dropped 85% year-on-year since Jan. 25.
• German researchers wrote to a prominent medical journal saying they have new evidence that people with no fever and “no signs or only minor signs of infection” can infect others with the SARS-COV-2 virus, the cause of Covid-19. Their correspondence, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said symptom-based screening of the 126 people evacuated from Wuhan to Frankfurt had failed to detect that two were infected with the virus.
Compiled by Flynn Murphy
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 10:30 a.m.
The coronavirus death toll passed a grim threshold overnight as China’s National Health Commission announced 2,006 people had died from Covid-19. Some 95% of the deaths have been in the outbreak epicenter of Hubei province, where doctors are still battling to contain its spread.
Hong Kong reported its second death from the disease on Wednesday morning.
As of the end of Tuesday, there were 74,279 reported cases of Covid-19 in China, including 74,185 on the Chinese mainland, according to official figures. Outside China, 25 countries have reported 920 cases of the virus, including three deaths.
A World Health Organization (WHO) note on Wednesday reported nearly 100 cases of human transmission outside of China, as Russia announced it would close its borders to Chinese citizens and South Korea recorded a spike in cases, possibly due to a super-spreader.
Ninety-two cases of human transmission outside China, WHO reports
There have been 92 recorded cases of human transmission in 12 countries outside of China, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a regular Covid-19 briefing Tuesday.
But we have not seen “sustained local transmission,” he said, except in cases like the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
“At the moment we don’t have enough data on cases outside China to make a meaningful comparison on the severity of disease or the case fatality rate,” Tedros said.
South Korea investigates church cluster
South Korea reported 15 new cases Wednesday including 11 in the city of Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, who were contacts of a previously diagnosed patient. Ten of those attended the same church, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC). Korean authorities have sent a crisis group to Daegu to investigate the possible presence of a “super-spreader” and implement control measures.
The daughter of someone earlier diagnosed, who is around 11 years old, has also tested positive while in self-quarantine. More than 1,000 people are currently being tested for the disease in South Korea, according to the KCDC.
In other coronavirus news
• A second Covid-19 patient has died in Hong Kong, the city’s hospital authority announced, according to a report by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The 70-year-old died Wednesday morning, the report said. A total of 62 coronavirus cases have now been diagnosed in the city.
• Russia will ban the entry of Chinese passport holders starting Thursday, the Moscow Times reports. That will include anyone entering from China for employment, education, tourism or other reasons, but will not affect passengers in transit, Russian authorities said.
• Jaguar Land Rover head Ralf Speth said Tuesday that the company only had two weeks' supply of the parts it needs from China to continue production, Reuters reported. It's the latest instance of supply chains being shaken around the world, after Fiat Chrysler announced plans to indefinitely halt production at its Serbia plant for similar reasons.
• The Hubei provincial government said (link in Chinese) it would investigate anyone who bought medication for cough or fever after Jan. 20, whether in pharmacies or online, as part of an unprecedented effort to track down Covid-19 patients in the quarantined province. The news comes after legal experts told Caixin some of the measures being taken in the coronavirus-hit Chinese province may be illegal.
• Japan will soon begin trials of HIV drugs to see if they can be used to treat the coronavirus, Reuters reports. Limited success has previously been reported with the use of AbbVie's HIV drug Kaletra.
• French pharmaceutical company Sanofi announced Tuesday it would repurpose earlier work on SARS to accelerate efforts to develop a novel coronavirus vaccine, Bloomberg reported. Experts have told Caixin developing a vaccine will probably take years.
• Passengers on the Diamond Princess, home to the largest coronavirus cluster outside of China, have begun disembarking from the cruise ship that has been quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, according to NHK.
• Also on Wednesday, the operator of the Westerdam, a cruise ship that was finally allowed to dock in Cambodia last week after a week in limbo at sea, said in a tweet that all 781 passengers remaining in the Southeast Asian country had tested negative for the virus.
Compiled by Flynn Murphy
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