Coronavirus cases outside China 'could be spark'' for bigger fire, WHO says

BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on Monday the spread of coronavirus cases among people who have not been to China could be “the spark that becomes a bigger fire” and the human race must not let the epidemic get out of control

As of 0500 GMT on Monday, there had been 40,235 confirmed cases reported in China and 909 deaths, as well as 319 cases in 24 other countries, including one death, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The death toll from the epidemic had jumped by 97 on Sunday - the largest number in a single day since the virus was detected in the city of Wuhan in December.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew on board remained quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 65 more cases detected, taking the number of confirmed case from the Carnival Corp-owned vessel to 135.

European stocks fell on concerns about the impact of the closure of factories in China on supply chains for companies from Taiwan’s iPhone-maker Foxconn to carmakers Kia Motors and Nissan

Across mainland China, where people were trickling back to work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, 3,062 new infections were confirmed on Sunday, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).

Wu Fan, vice-dean of Shanghai Fudan University Medical school, said there was hope of a turning point in the outbreak. But Ghebreyesus said there had been “concerning instances” of transmission from people who had not been to China.

“It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva. “But for now it is only a spark. Our objective remains containment.

“We should really fight hard as one human race to fight this virus before it gets out of control,” he said.

An advance team of international WHO experts had arrived in China to investigate.

“This mission brings together the best of Chinese science, Chinese public health with the best of the world’s public health”, the WHO’s Mike Ryan said in Geneva.

The death toll from the outbreak has now surpassed that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds worldwide in 2002/2003.

NERVOUS COMMUTERS

Usually teeming Chinese cities have become virtual ghost towns after Communist Party rulers ordered lockdowns, cancelled flights and closed factories and schools.

Ten extra days had been added to the Lunar New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January. But even on Monday, many workplaces remained closed as people worked from home.

Few commuters were seen during the morning rush-hour on one of Beijing's busiest subway lines. All wore masks. Graphic: Comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS - here

One Beijing government official, Zhang Gewho, said it would be harder to curb the spread of the virus as people returned to work.

“The capacity of communities and flow of people will greatly increase and the difficulty,” he said.

Hubei, the province of 60 million people that is the hardest hit by the outbreak, remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and roads sealed.

In Britain, the government said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases there had doubled to eight. It declared the virus a serious and imminent threat, giving it additional powers to isolate those suspected of being infected.

China’s central bank has taken steps to support the economy, including reducing interest rates and flushing the market with liquidity, and will also now provide special funds for banks to re-lend to businesses.

President Xi Jinping said the government would prevent large-scale layoffs, Chinese state television reported.

Xi, who was shown on television inspecting the work of community leaders in Beijing and wearing a mask as he had his temperature taken, also said China would strive to meet economic and social targets for the year.

One senior economist has said growth may slow to 5% or less in the first quarter.

More than 300 Chinese firms including Meituan Dianping, China’s largest food delivery company, and smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp were seeking loans totalling at least 57.4 billion yuan ($8.2 billion), banking sources said.

E-commerce firm Alibaba said its affiliate, Ant Financial’s MYBank unit, would offer 20 billion yuan ($2.86 billion) in loans to companies in China, with preferential terms for Hubei firms.

Apple’s biggest iPhone maker, Foxconn, won approval to resume production in the eastern central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, but only 10% of the workforce has managed to return, a source said. It won approval to resume partial production in the southern city of Shenzhen from Tuesday.

A prolonged and widespread coronavirus outbreak could hit the Japanese economy, affecting tourism, retail and exports, among other areas, a senior International Monetary Fund official said.

Additional reporting by Sophie Yu, Ryan Woo, Huizhong Wu, Liangping Gao, Stella Qiu, Colin Qian, Brenda Goh in Beijing, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Joyce Lee and Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul, Kylie MacLellan and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Giles Elgood; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage

 

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