Global cases of Covid-19 are approaching 1.5 million, as both the US and the UK recorded their deadliest day yet in the pandemic, and a fresh World Health Organization row erupted.
Despite the grim US death toll for Tuesday – 1,858 in total, including 806 in New York City – White House taskforce officials said on Wednesday night there were signs isolation measures were working and the death toll may not be as high as the 100,000 to 240,000 minimum feared.
Dr Deborah Birx, the US virus response coordinator, said: “We carefully looked at Italy and Spain and we are doing much better in many cases than several other countries and we’re trying to understand that. We believe that our healthcare delivery system in the United States is quite extraordinary.”
More than 88,538 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker. The number of confirmed infections is approaching 1.5 million, although it is believed to be far higher due to under-reporting by some countries.
Official UK figures showed 938 more people had died in hospitals, bringing the total to 7,097, although the true death toll is likely to be significantly higher.
During Wednesday’s White House briefing, Trump also responded to reports that US intelligence officials had warned his office as far back as November that a coronavirus was spreading through China’s Hubei region. According to US media outlet ABC News, a report from the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) said it could be “a cataclysmic event” and would threaten US forces in Asia.
Trump said: “When I learned about the gravity of [the outbreak] was some time just prior to closing the country to China. So I don’t know exactly, but I’d like to see the information.”
Trump imposed restrictions on travellers from China on 2 February, and did not declare an emergency until March.
Meanwhile, an escalating feud between Taiwan and the World Health Organization (WHO) saw key figures publicly trading accusations in recent days.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that he had been subjected to months of attacks, including racist ones against him and black communities, and accused Taiwan of condoning the “campaign”.
“This attack came from Taiwan,” said Tedros. “Taiwan, the foreign minister, they know the campaign and they don’t disassociate themselves.
“They even started criticising me in the middle of all those insults and slurs.”
On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry demanded a clarification and apology for what it said was a “groundless” accusation and an “extremely irresponsible act of slander”. It said the government in no way condoned or encouraged personal attacks on Tedros.
“Taiwan’s 23 million population also experiences serious discrimination from the global health system,” the ministry said. “We can relate [to Tedros] and we condemn any form of discrimination and injustice.”
The feud largely stems from Taiwan’s continued exclusion from WHO membership and activities due to lobbying by the Chinese government, which claims Taiwan as its territory.
Taiwan has had extraordinary success in preventing a major outbreak, and the island’s government has repeatedly complained that it is left out of the global response coordination. Last month a video went viral of a senior WHO advisor appeared to hang up on a Hong Kong journalist who asked about Taiwan’s response efforts and WHO membership.
The WHO and Tedros have been criticised for being too deferential to China during the pandemic outbreak, which sought to suppress information in the early weeks.
China reported a slight increase in new coronavirus cases for the second straight day, as the number of infections involving incoming overseas travellers hit a two-week high. The National Health Commission reported 63 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, up from 62 a day earlier. Of those, 61 were overseas arrivals, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in China to 81,865.
State-run CCTV reported land border entry points between China and Russia were temporarily closed after dozens of Chinese citizens crossed back into China in recent days carrying the virus. The northernmost province of Heilongjiang reported 87 imported cases, including 84 from Russia.
The city of Suifenhe, home to 70,000 people, reportedly introduced Wuhan-style lockdown measures from Wednesday, including restrictions on how many people can leave their house to buy necessities.
In other developments:
Boris Johnson has spent a third night in intensive care, but on Wednesday he was sitting up in bed and “engaging positively” with the clinical team, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said.
Doctors in Pakistan have warned of “deplorable” conditions on the frontlines of the outbreak, describing the pandemic as untreatable in one region and accusing police of brutally suppressing protests over working conditions.
Oxfam warned the coronavirus could push half a billion people into poverty unless urgent action is taken to bail out poor countries affected by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Concerns about a potential outbreak in Yemen, where no cases have been reported so far, are partly behind a decision to call a halt to the military action there that has left tens of thousands dead and spread hunger and disease, a Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said.
Italy recorded 542 new deaths, but the rate has slowed slightly. The number of infected people increased by 1,195, or 1.3%. There was also a record day-to-day increase – 2,099 – in the number of people who have survived.
The World Trade Organization forecast a fall in global trade of up to a third. The suffering caused by the pandemic will be compounded by “unavoidable declines in trade and output”, the WTO’s director general said.