BEIJING • An American citizen has died of the coronavirus in Wuhan city, in what appeared to be the first confirmed death of a foreigner from the illness. Meanwhile, a Japanese man in the city also died with symptoms consistent with the disease, as the epidemic looks set to pass the death toll from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
The death toll in mainland China rose to 723 yesterday and is poised to pass the 774 deaths recorded globally during the 2002-2003 outbreak of Sars, another coronavirus that jumped from animals to humans in China.
Most of the deaths in China have occurred in and around Wuhan in central Hubei province.
Across mainland China, the number of cases stood at 34,598 as of yesterday.
During the Sars outbreak, the number of reported cases was 8,098, suggesting a far lower transmission rate than the latest coronavirus, but a higher mortality rate.
While the vast majority of cases have been in China, the virus has spread to some 27 countries and regions, infecting more than 330 people.
Two deaths have been reported outside of mainland China - in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Both victims were Chinese nationals.
On the death of the American citizen in Wuhan, a US embassy spokesman in Beijing said yesterday that the 60-year-old died at Jinyintan Hospital on Thursday.
The Japanese man in his 60s was hospitalised with pneumonia and died after suffering symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, Japan's Foreign Ministry said.
Health officials are still uncertain how deadly the illness is.
"It is hard to say how lethal this novel coronavirus infection is," Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University in Melbourne, told Reuters.
"While the crude mortality appears to be around 2 per cent, there are likely to be many people who have been infected that haven't been tested... We probably won't know the true case fatality for some time yet."
As part of its endeavours to manage the coronavirus in Hubei province, China has assigned two new officials to be in direct control of the efforts.
Mr Chen Yixin, previously the top Communist Party secretary in the capital of Hubei, will be the deputy head of the central government's directing group on Hubei, according to a WeChat blog affiliated with state media. The group is in charge of sorting out the epidemic in the province and is led by Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan.
Mr Wang Hesheng, deputy head of the National Health Commission, will become a member of Hubei's standing committee, which is the top decision-making body for the province, according to the same blog Taoran Notes, which is linked to the Economic Daily Newspaper.
In Wuhan, another makeshift hospital opened yesterday, state-run CCTV reported. Leishenshan hospital will provide an additional 1,500 beds.
The authorities in Hubei province have been converting buildings into hospitals to deal with the high number of patients. Wuhan's first makeshift hospital, Huoshenshan - built from scratch in just eight days - started to receive patients on Monday.
Beijing's communist leadership has sealed off cities, cancelled flights and closed factories to contain the epidemic, a response that has had ripple effects globally for financial markets and businesses dependent on the world's second-biggest economy.
The Chinese economy will sputter towards normal tomorrow, as millions return from the provinces to the big cities after the Chinese New Year holidays. But many workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers will continue to work from home.
Many employers in the southern technology hub of Shenzhen are taking precautions to prevent workers from returning in large crowds, asking those who have travelled from elsewhere to self-quarantine for up to 14 days.
US electric carmaker Tesla's factory in Shanghai will resume production tomorrow. Apple Inc is working to reopen its China corporate offices and call centres, and is making preparations to reopen retail stores there.
But the authorities have blocked a plan by Apple supplier Foxconn to resume production tomorrow over concerns about the spread of the virus, Japan's Nikkei business daily reported yesterday.
Goldman Sachs has cut its first-quarter GDP growth target for China to 4 per cent from 5.6 per cent, saying a deeper hit is possible.
"The longer this disruption continues, the higher the risk it affects employment and the higher the risk of a much bigger hit on the economy," said Mr Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics.