SHANGHAI/ BEIJING (REUTERS) - More than 2,600 new cases were confirmed from a coronavirus outbreak in mainland China, health officials said on Saturday (Feb 15), a day after people returning to the capital from holidays were ordered to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
The total of confirmed infections across mainland China was 66,492 after 2,641 new cases were confirmed as of Friday, the National Health Commission said.
The death toll rose by 143 to 1,523, it said, with most of the new deaths in central Hubei province and in particular the provincial capital of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people where the outbreak began in December.
National Health Commission official Liang Wannian told a news conference that the government would maintain efforts to contain the spread of virus in Wuhan, which has been under virtual lockdown for three weeks.
The commission was focused on lowering the fatality rate and reducing the rate of infection, Liang said.
The number of deaths in Hubei rose by 139 as of Friday, 107 of those in Wuhan. A total of 1,123 people in Wuhan have now died from the coronavirus.
China is struggling to get the world's second-largest economy going after the Chinese New Year holiday, which was extended by 10 days to help contain the virus.
Many travel restrictions are still in place and many factories have yet to reopen. Liu Xiaoming, vice-minister of transport, said travel volumes were only about one-fifth to one-sixth the normal level.
China would maintain a prudent monetary policy and help companies resume production, the vice-governor of the central bank told a news conference, while lenders would tolerate higher levels of bad loans to support firms.
The official Beijing Daily newspaper said people failing to obey government orders to quarantine themselves on return from the holidays would be punished. But it was not immediately clear how that would be enforced, or whether the restrictions would apply to non-residents or foreigners arriving from abroad.
"All those who have returned to Beijing should stay at home or submit to group observation for 14 days," Beijing's virus prevention working group said in a notice the newspaper cited.
"Those who refuse to accept home or centralised observation and other prevention and control measures will be held accountable under the law," it said.
The number of trade fairs and sports events in China and overseas that have been affected by the spread of the virus increased.
International Business Machines Corp said on Friday that it had cancelled its participation in the RSA cyber security conference in San Francisco at the end of February due to coronavirus-related concerns.
Earlier, Facebook Inc said it had cancelled its global marketing summit scheduled for next month, also in San Francisco, over worry about the same risks.
The Mobile World Congress, the annual telecoms industry gathering in Barcelona, was also cancelled after a mass exodus by exhibitors.
Organisers of next week's gymnastics World Cup in Melbourne said on Saturday that the entire Chinese team had pulled out due to travel restrictions.
A top Chinese official, in an interview with Reuters, acknowledged that the coronavirus was a huge challenge, but defended the government's management of it and lashed out at the "over-reaction" of some countries.
State Councillor Wang Yi, who also serves as China's foreign minister, said China had taken decisive measures, many going beyond international health regulations and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.
"Through our efforts the epidemic is overall under control,"he said.
CASE IN EGYPT
Outside mainland China, there have been about 500 cases in some 24 countries and territories, and three deaths - one in Japan, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
Africa recorded its first case, in Egypt, where the affected person, a foreigner, was put into isolation in hospital.
Thailand reported its 34th case, a medical worker, a day after China said 1,716 of its health workers had been infected and six had died.
The virus is killing about 2 per cent of those infected and has spread faster than other respiratory viruses that emerged this century.
A World Health Organisation-led joint mission with China will start its outbreak investigation work this weekend, focusing on how the new coronavirus is spreading and its severity, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
The United States will evacuate some Americans from a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, being held in quarantine in Japan, which has become the biggest cluster of coronavirus infections outside China, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The ship, owned by Carnival Corp, has been quarantined since arriving in Yokohama, Japan, on Feb 3, with 3,500 passengers and crew on board, of whom 218 have tested positive for the infection.
Alarm was raised about the ship after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. Those who have tested positive have been taken off the ship to hospital.