HONG KONG (REUTERS, XINHUA) - Hong Kong reported its first death from the coronavirus on Tuesday (Feb 4), the second fatality outside mainland China from an outbreak that has killed over 420 people, spread around the world and raised fears for global economic growth.
A 39-year-old man, who had an underlying illness, had taken the high-speed train from Hong Kong to Wuhan city in Hubei province on Jan 21, and from Changsha in Hunan province to Hong Kong on Jan 23, the Hospital Authority said.
The Centre for Health Protection said earlier that he had not visited any healthcare facilities, wet markets or seafood markets, and had no exposure to wild animals during the incubation period.
The man developed muscle pain last week and came down with a fever. He later sought treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital and was put in an isolation ward.
He lived in Whampoa Garden and was the 13th confirmed case in Hong Kong. His 72-year-old mother was confirmed on Sunday as having been infected.
The death comes as hundreds of medical workers in the Asian financial hub began a second day of strikes on Tuesday to force the government to completely close the city’s borders with mainland China, a day after embattled leader Carrie Lam left three remaining checkpoints open.
The Asian financial centre has confirmed 15 cases of the coronavirus, yet the city’s public hospital network is struggling to cope with a deluge of patients and measures to contain the epidemic.
Hong Kong was badly hit by severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), another coronavirus that emerged from China in 2002 and killed almost 800 people around the world. According to World Health Organisation figures, Sars killed 299 people in Hong Kong during that outbreak.
Chinese data suggest that the new virus, while much more contagious than Sars, is significantly less lethal, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.
The first death outside China was reported on Sunday – a 44-year-old Chinese man who died in the Philippines after travelling there from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus.
The Hong Kong fatality brought the total death toll from the virus to 427. Chinese authorities said the toll in China rose by a record 64 from the previous day to 425, mostly in Hubei province. The total number of infections in China rose by 3,235 to 20,438, and there were at least 151 cases in 23 other countries and regions.
China’s currency and stock markets steadied in choppy trade after anxiety over the spreading coronavirus on Monday hit the yuan and erased some US$400 billion (S$548 billion) in market value from Shanghai’s benchmark index.
More foreigners were evacuated from China’s locked down central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and thousands of people were stranded on a Japanese cruise ship after one passenger tested positive for the virus.
New cases were reported in the United States, including a patient in California who was infected through close contact with someone in the same household who had been infected in China.
“We expect to see more cases of person-to-person spread,” said Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The WHO has declared the flu-like virus a global emergency, although experts say much is still unknown about the pathogen, including its mortality rate and transmission pathways.
Such uncertainties are leading some countries to take extreme measures to stem the spread of the virus. Australia sent hundreds of evacuees from Wuhan to a remote island in the Indian Ocean, while Japan ordered the quarantine of a cruise ship carrying more than 3,000 people after a Hong Kong man who sailed on it last month tested positive for coronavirus.
The US said last Friday it would block nearly all foreign visitors who have been to China within the past 14 days, joining Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Vietnam and others who have imposed similar entry restrictions.
A day after accusing Washington of scaremongering, Beijing said it would welcome assistance from the US to fight the outbreak.
“China has noted that the United States has repeatedly expressed its willingness to provide assistance to China, and hopes that the relevant assistance will be provided soon,” foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
The White House said China had accepted its offer to have US experts as part of a WHO mission to study and help combat the virus.
With Wuhan and some other cities in virtual lockdown, travel severely restricted and China facing increasing international isolation, fears of wider economic disruption are growing; sources at the Opec oil cartel said producers were considering cutting output by almost a third to support prices.
Airlines around the world have stopped flights to parts of China. A suspension by the United Arab Emirates on Monday will affect the Gulf airlines Etihad and Emirates.
Some economists predict world economic output will be cut by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points due to China’s lockdown.