By Ryan Woo and Stephanie Nebehay
BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) – China reported its fewest new coronavirus infections since January on Tuesday and its lowest daily death toll for a week, but the World Health Organization said data suggesting the epidemic had slowed should still be viewed with caution.
The head of a leading hospital in China’s central city of Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, died of the disease on Tuesday, becoming one of the most prominent victims since the disease first appeared at the end of last year.
Illustrating the economic impact of the outbreak, European shares dropped on Tuesday after Apple Inc issued a revenue warning due to the disruption the disease is causing to global supply chains.
Chinese officials reported 1,886 new cases – the first time the daily figure has fallen below 2,000 since Jan. 30 – bringing the mainland China total to 72,436. A figure of 98 new deaths marked the first time the daily toll in China had fallen below 100 since Feb. 11, bringing the total to 1,868.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Chinese data “appears to show a decline in new cases” but any apparent trend “must be interpreted very cautiously”.
Outside China, there have been 827 cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, and five deaths, according to a Reuters count based on official statements. More than half of those cases have been on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan.
Tedros said there had been 92 cases of human-to-human spread of the coronavirus in 12 countries outside China but the WHO did not have the data to make meaningful comparisons to what was going on in China.
“We have not seen sustained local transmission of coronavirus except in specific circumstances like the Diamond Princess cruise ship,” he said.
China says figures indicating a slowdown in new cases in recent days show that aggressive steps it has taken to curb travel and commerce are slowing the spread of the disease beyond central Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan.
The WHO’s Mike Ryan said China had had success with “putting out the fire” first in Hubei and ensuring that people returning to Beijing from the Lunar New Year holiday are monitored.
The numbers appear encouraging, said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Britain’s University of Edinburgh, who described himself as cautious.
“Though it is unrealistic to reduce the transmission rate to zero it may have been reduced to a level where the epidemic is brought under control,” Woolhouse said.
“It may be that the epidemic is simply running its natural course, and is starting to run out of new people to infect. It could also be that the unprecedented public health measures introduced in China are having the desired effect.”
Chinese state television said Liu Zhiming, the director of Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, died on Tuesday, the seventh health worker to fall victim. The hospital was designated solely for treating virus-infected patients.
Despite global concerns about the economic impact of the disease, China’s ambassador to the European Union said on Tuesday this would be “limited, short-term and manageable” and that Beijing had enough resources to step in if needed.
Chinese state television quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China could still meet its economic growth target for 2020 despite the epidemic.
Economists are warning of potential mass layoffs in China later this year if the virus is not contained soon.
“The employment situation is OK in the first quarter, but if the virus is not contained by end-March, then from the second quarter, we’ll see a big round of layoffs,” said Dan Wang, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Job losses could run as high as 4.5 million, he forecast.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the economy there was in an emergency situation and required stimulus as the epidemic had disrupted demand for South Korean goods.
Singapore announced a $4.5 billion financial package to help contain the outbreak in the city-state and weather its economic impact.
Singapore Airlines Ltd said it would temporarily cut flights in the three months to May, as the epidemic hits demand for services touching and transiting the key travel hub.
Japan, where the economy was already shrinking and the epidemic has created fears of recession, the spread of the virus has prompted Tokyo to put limits on public crowds while some companies are telling employees to work from home.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Lusha Zhang, Gabriel Crossley and Se Young Lee in Beijing, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gareth Jones)