China on Thursday touted a big drop in new virus cases as proof its epidemic control efforts are working, but the toll grew abroad with deaths in Japan and South Korea.
The death tally in China hit 2,118 as 114 more people died, but health officials reported the lowest number of new cases there in nearly a month, including in hardest-hit Hubei province.
More than 74,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus in China and hundreds more in over 25 countries.
The number of deaths outside mainland China climbed to 11.
Japan’s toll rose to three as a man and a woman in their 80s who had been aboard a quarantined cruise ship died, while fears there mounted about other passengers who disembarked the Diamond Princess after testing negative.
South Korea reported its first death and the number of infections nearly doubled to 104 — almost half of them from a cluster centred on a religious sect.
The mayor of Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, advised residents to stay indoors, and commanders at a major US base in the area restricted access.
Iran reported two deaths on Wednesday, the first fatalities in the Middle East. Deaths have previously been confirmed in France, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chinese officials say their drastic containment efforts, including quarantining tens of millions of people in Hubei and restricting movements in cities nationwide, have started to pay off.
“Results show that our control efforts are working,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a special meeting on the virus with Southeast Asian counterparts in Laos, citing the latest data.
Wang said the situation was “significantly improving” in Hubei and Wuhan, but an official in a central government team dealing with the epidemic said it was still “very severe”.
More than 600 new infections were reported in Hubei’s capital Wuhan – the lowest daily tally since late January and well down from the 1,749 new cases the day before.
The national figure has now fallen for three straight days.
Chinese authorities placed Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, under quarantine on January 23 and quickly locked down the rest of Hubei in the days that followed.
City authorities this week carried out a three-day, door-to-door search for suspected patients, with the local Communist Party chief warning that officials would be “held accountable” if any infections were missed.
Cities far from the epicentre have limited the number of people who can leave their houses for groceries, while villages have sealed themselves off from outsiders.
Richard Brennan, a World Health Organization official, said in Cairo that China was making “tremendous progress” and “trends are very encouraging but we are not at a turning point yet”.
While China has boasted progress in its fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, Japan’s government faces criticism over quarantine measures on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The huge vessel moored in Yokohama is easily the biggest coronavirus cluster outside the Chinese epicentre, with 621 cases confirmed among the passengers and crew — one-sixth of the total.
On Wednesday, 443 passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative for the virus and not showing symptoms during a 14-day quarantine period. The complete removal of the passengers was expected to last at least three days.
More passengers left the ship on Thursday, packing into yellow buses and leaving for stations and airports.
But questions emerged over the wisdom of allowing former passengers to roam freely around Japan’s crowded cities, even if they have tested negative.
A specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University has slammed “completely chaotic” quarantine procedures on board in rare criticism from a Japanese academic.
“The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of infection control,” said Kentaro Iwata in videos he has since deleted.
Japan’s health ministry insisted it had conducted “consultations on appropriate infection control in the ship” with experts and taken a range of measures.
South Korea announced 51 new cases, with more than 40 in a cluster in Daegu centred on the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult.
Almost half are linked to a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Daegu branch of the church.
A man in his 60s in neighbouring North Gyeongsang province tested positive for the coronavirus after dying Wednesday following symptoms of pneumonia, authorities said.