BEIJING (AFP) - International experts have begun meeting their counterparts in China over the new coronavirus epidemic, whose future path is "impossible" to predict, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said late on Sunday (Feb 16).
The number of new cases from China's coronavirus epidemic dropped for a third consecutive day, but global concern remains high about its spread, emphasised by a United States announcement that more than three dozen Americans from a cruise ship quarantined off Japan are infected.
The virus first emerged in China's central Hubei province in December, and this weekend claimed its first reported death outside Asia, in France.
The death toll jumped to 1,665 in mainland China after an additional 142 people lost their lives. More than 68,000 people have now been infected - but the number of new cases of the Covid-19 strain continued to decline.
"International experts participating in the @WHO-led joint mission with (China) have arrived in Beijing and have had their first meeting with Chinese counterparts today," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
"We look forward to this vitally important collaboration contributing to global knowledge about the #COVID19 outbreak."
In hardest-hit Hubei, the number of new cases slowed for a third consecutive day and, at 139, the number of deaths was level with Saturday's toll.
The number of new cases in other parts of the country have dropped for 12 straight days.
Mr Mi Feng, National Health Commission spokesman, said on Sunday that the figures were a sign that China was controlling the outbreak.
"The effects of epidemic prevention and control in various parts of the country can already be seen," he told reporters.
On a visit to Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed confidence that the "gigantic effort" by China "will allow for the progressive reduction of the disease".
But Dr Tedros warned it was "impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take".
"We ask all governments, companies and news organisations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria," he said at the Munich Security Conference.
The UN health body has asked China for more details on how diagnoses are being made.
The scale of the epidemic ballooned last Thursday after the authorities in Hubei changed their criteria for counting cases, retroactively adding 14,000 cases in a single day.
Chinese authorities have placed about 56 million people in Hubei and its capital Wuhan under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
Even as China insisted the epidemic was under control, Hubei authorities announced on Sunday a tightening of movement across the province.
This includes broad instructions that residential compounds and villages be "sealed off" from unnecessary visitors, with tenants' outings "strictly managed", as well as recommending bulk purchases of daily necessities.
All non-essential public spaces will also be closed.
Local authorities elsewhere in China have also introduced measures to try and stop the virus spreading.
Beijing's municipal government has enacted a rule requiring people coming to the capital to self-quarantine for 14 days, according to official media.
Outside mainland China, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist in France was the fourth person to die from the new coronavirus. Other deaths have occurred in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.
The biggest cluster outside China is on a quarantined cruise ship off Japan, with 355 infections confirmed.
A top US health official on Sunday said 40 Americans from the ship have become infected and would be treated in Japan. Other Americans left the Diamond Princess into the early hours of Monday for chartered jumbo jets that would fly them home - and into further quarantine.
Malaysia on Sunday said it would not allow any cruise ships departing or transiting Chinese ports to enter the country, following the discovery of a US citizen with the coronavirus.
The virus spread last month as millions travelled across China for the Chinese New Year holiday, which was extended to try and prevent more infections.
People have slowly started to return to work in the past two weeks, though many are doing their jobs from home and schools remain closed.
With the government facing criticism over its handling of the crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the government must "increase use of police force and strengthen the visible use of police" during the crisis. He made the comments in a Feb 3 speech published by state media on Saturday.
A number of local officials have been sacked for their role in mishandling the outbreak.
On Sunday, a host of new reprimands were made against officials in the virus-hit region, including one who "cut corners and worked around the centralised quarantine order", according to Hubei authorities.
"When a crisis like this happens, it becomes politically important - it's about China's international image, it's about the Party's legitimacy," said Ms Zhou Xun, a historian of modern China at the University of Essex.
China's health system is "overloaded, inefficient, expensive and chaotic", she added. "That's one of the things (that) made the current crisis even worse."