By David Kirton and Stephanie Nebehay
GUANGZHOU, China/GENEVA (Reuters) - The coronavirus outbreak in China may be over by April, the country's senior medical adviser said on Tuesday, and the latest numbers of new cases may further feed that optimism.
Hubei, the province at the epicenter of the outbreak that has been under virtual lockdown, reported another 94 people had died and there were 1,638 new coronavirus cases as of Tuesday.
That is down from a peak of over 3,000 new cases on Feb. 4, and the lowest number of new infections since 1,347 were reported on Jan. 31.
But total deaths in China have surpassed 1,100 and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a global threat potentially worse than terrorism.
The world must "wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters, adding the first vaccine was 18 months away.
China's foremost medical adviser on the outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, said numbers of new cases were falling in some provinces and forecast the epidemic would peak this month.
"I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April," Zhong, an epidemiologist who played a role in combating an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, told Reuters.
World stocks, which had seen rounds of sell-offs over the coronarvirus' impact on China's economy and its ripple effects, surged to record highs on Zhong's comments. The Dow industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit new peaks. [MKTS/GLOB]
Even if the epidemic ends soon, it has already taken a toll on China's economy, as companies began laying off workers and other firms said they would need loans running into billions of dollars to stay afloat. Supply chains for car manufacturers to smartphone makers have broken down.
Total cases of the new coronavirus in China have now surpassed 44,000, according to the WHO and Chinese health officials.
Statistics from China indicate about 2% of people infected with the new virus have died, many of them elderly or with prior medical conditions. But the spread of the virus, which can lead to pneumonia, has already caused widespread disruption.
St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said China's economy was expected to "slow noticeably" in the first quarter and anyone pricing assets should for now consider the "tail risk" that the outbreak could get worse.
But Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said the financial spillover from the outbreak looked containable, though it was still early to judge the economic impact.
'WORST ENEMY YOU CAN IMAGINE'
The WHO's Tedros was less sanguine about the virus, now officially named COVID-19 - CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year it emerged. World health organizations wanted a name that did not refer to a location or animal.
"To be honest a virus is more powerful in creating political, social and economic upheaval than any terrorist attack," he said. "It's the worst enemy you can imagine."
The impact of travel curbs, lockdowns and production suspensions is being felt increasingly on China's economy.
JPMorgan analysts downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter and Norwegian energy consultancy Rystad Energy predicted the outbreak would cut growth in global oil demand by a quarter this year.
Cisco Systems Inc <CSCO.O>, Facebook Inc <FB.O>, AT&T <T.N> and Sprint Corp <S.N> became the latest U.S. technology companies to pull out of an international telecoms conference in Barcelona because of the outbreak. The organizer of the event, the telecom industry's biggest annual gathering, will discuss whether to cancel it, an industry source said.
Inside China, more than 300 companies are seeking bank loans totaling 57.4 billion yuan ($8.2 billion) to help cope with the disruption, 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.
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 its roughly 20,000 workers.
CRUISE SHIPS QUARANTINED
Hubei, where the flu-like virus emerged in China from a wildlife market in the provincial capital of Wuhan, remains in virtual lockdown, its stations and airports shut and roads blocked.
With public anger rising, Hubei's government dismissed the provincial health commission's Communist Party boss, Zhang Jin, and director Liu Yingzi, state media said.
Washington, whose travel restrictions have offended Beijing, authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and family members from Chinese-ruled Hong Kong "out of an abundance of caution," the State Department said.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, an official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said she hoped the first group of Americans evacuated from Wuhan could be released from their quarantine on Tuesday.
Off Japan's port of Yokohama, the Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew remained quarantined, with the number of confirmed cases at 135 - the largest single cluster of cases outside China.
Thailand said it had barred passengers from getting off another ship, Holland America Line's MS Westerdam, though no confirmed infections have been found on board.
(GRAPHIC: Comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS: https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS-COMPARISON/0100B5BY3CY/index.html)
(This story corrects number of new cases in par 2 to 1,638, not 1,068)
(Reporting by David Kirton in Guangzhou; Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Huizhong Wu, Shivani Singh, Gabriel Crossley, Min Zhang, Liangping Gao, Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Yilei Sun, David Stanway in Shanghai; Tom Westbrook in Singapore; David Lawder in Washington.; Writing by Nick Macfie, Timothy Heritage and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by William Maclean, Philippa Fletcher and Bill Berkrot)