BEIJING — China reported Sunday a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day, as it became apparent that the country’s leadership was aware of the potential gravity of the situation well before the alarm was sounded.

There are 2,009 new cases in mainland China, bringing its total number of confirmed cases to 68,500, according to the country's National Health Commission.

The fatality rate remained stable with 142 new deaths. The death toll in mainland China from COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, now stands at 1,665.

The outbreak began in December in Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.

It has since spread to more than 24 countries and prompted sweeping prevention measures from the Chinese government, including a lockdown of cities with a combined population of more than 60 million.

Many countries have also placed travel restrictions on recent visitors to China.

After Chinese President Xi Jinping played a muted public role in the early days of the epidemic, state media published Saturday evening a speech Xi delivered Feb. 3 in which he said he gave instructions on fighting the virus as early as Jan. 7.

Policemen wear face masks as they march in formation outside the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. People returning to Beijing will now have to isolate themselves either at home or in a concentrated area for medical observation, said a notice from the Chinese capital's prevention and control work group published by state media late Friday.
Mark Schiefelbein / AP
Policemen wear face masks as they march in formation outside the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. People returning to Beijing will now have to isolate themselves either at home or in a concentrated area for medical observation, said a notice from the Chinese capital's prevention and control work group published by state media late Friday.

The disclosure indicates top leaders were aware of the outbreak’s potential severity well before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

In his speech, Xi also revealed that he ordered a lockdown of the virus epicenter: “On Jan. 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people.”

On Jan. 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation.

Associated Press researcher Henry Hou contributed to this report.