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China sacks party chiefs at virus epicentre

The removals are the latest in a purge that saw Hubei's two most senior health officials fired earlier this week as criticism grows over the way the outbreak has been handled, with claims of under-reporting.

This undated handout picture courtesy of the British Health Protection Agency shows the coronavirus seen under an electron microscope. Picture: AFP.

BEIJING - China has sacked the top political leaders of virus-stricken Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the highest-profile figures to be removed so far in a crisis that has killed 1,355.

The removals are the latest in a purge that saw Hubei's two most senior health officials fired earlier this week as criticism grows over the way the outbreak has been handled, with claims of under-reporting.

The province reported a dramatic spike in virus cases Thursday, raising the total number of nationwide infections to nearly 60,000 after Hubei authorities changed the way they count infections - fuelling fears over a lack of transparency.

Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei's party secretary, will be replaced by Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, while Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang will be replaced by an official from Shandong, Xinhua news agency reported.

Thursday's spike came as Hubei officials said they were correcting previous diagnoses to include people "clinically diagnosed" with the virus, adding 14,840 new cases to its total.

The new system means doctors can use lung imaging, rather than solely laboratory tests.

The virus is believed to have originated late last year at a seafood market in Hubei province's capital Wuhan.

Pressure on local officials for their perceived incompetence has mounted particularly after the death last week of a Chinese doctor who was punished by Wuhan authorities for raising the alarm about the new virus.

Wuhan authorities also faced criticism in January for going ahead with an annual public banquet for 40,000 families just days before the city was placed on lockdown.

Other changes have been taking place in the province, including the sacking of a top Red Cross official in Wuhan for dereliction of duty and the removal of health officials in other cities.

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