BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) - China reported a decrease in the number of new deaths and new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday (Feb 22), while its central bank predicted a limited short-term economic impact and said the country was confident in winning the fight against the epidemic.
Mainland China had 397 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections on Friday, down from 889 a day earlier, the national health authority said.
The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China rose to 76,288, with the death toll at 2,345 as of the end of Friday.
The central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, reported 106 new deaths of which 90 were in its capital Wuhan.
The coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in Chinese prisons, the authorities said on Friday, as cases jumped beyond the epicentre in Hubei province, including more than 100 in South Korea and a worsening outbreak in Italy.
Chinese scientists on Friday reported that a woman from Wuhan had travelled 675km and infected five relatives without ever showing signs of infection, offering new evidence of asymptomatical spreading.
Senior Chinese central bank officials sought to ease global investors' worries about the potential damage to the world's second-largest economy from the outbreak, saying interest rates would be guided lower and that the country's financial system and currency were resilient.
Mr Chen Yulu, a deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, said policymakers had plenty of tools to support the economy, and that they were fully confident of winning the war against the epidemic, according to China Central Television (CCTV).
"We believe that after this epidemic is over, pent-up demand for consumption and investment will be fully released, and China's economy will rebound swiftly," Mr Chen said.
China recently cut several of its key lending rates, including the benchmark lending rate on Thursday, and has urged banks to extend cheap loans to the worst-hit companies which are struggling to resume production and are running out of cash.
Some analysts believe China's economy could contract in the first quarter from the previous three months due to the combined supply and demand shocks caused by the fast-spreading epidemic and strict government containment measures.
On an annual basis, some warn that growth could fall by as much as half from 6 per cent in the fourth quarter. Most expect a rebound in economic activity in the spring, providing the outbreak can be contained soon and factories hit by staff and raw material shortages can return to normal production in the next few weeks.
However, transportation restrictions remain in place in large parts of the country. While more firms are reopening, the limited data available so far suggests manufacturing is still running at levels far below those in the same period last year, and disruptions are starting to spillover into global supply chains as far away as the United States.
Finance leaders from the Group of 20 major economies were set to discuss risks to the world economy in Saudi Arabia this weekend. The International Monetary Fund said it was too soon to assess what the virus impact would be on global growth.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on Friday that the window of opportunity to contain wider international spread of the epidemic of the new coronavirus disease, dubbed Covid-19, is closing, after cases were reported in Iran and Lebanon.
Asked whether the outbreak is at a "tipping point" after new cases and deaths in Iran from Covid-19, and cases in Lebanon and Canada, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that he still believed the virus spread could be stopped.
"Although the window of opportunity is narrowing to contain the outbreak, we still have a chance to contain it," he said.
"If we don't, if we squander the opportunity, then there will be a serious problem on our hands," he said.
South Korea is the latest hot spot with another 142 new cases reported on Saturday, bringing its total to 346. Most of the cases are in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million, where scores were infected in what the authorities called a "super-spreading event" at a church, traced to an infected 61-year-old woman who attended services.
In Italy, an elderly man in the northern city of Padua died after being infected with the coronavirus, becoming the first Italian victim of the disease.
Health authorities announced earlier in the day 15 cases of the virus in the wealthy northern region of Lombardy and two in neighbouring Veneto where Padua is located - the first known cases of local transmission in the country. None of those infected were believed to have travelled to China.
Twenty-six other countries and territories have reported 1,151 cases and eight deaths.