Chinese tourist in France dies of coronavirus, first fatality in Europe and fourth outside mainland China

Remote video URL
The Bichat hospital in Paris, where some of the patients infected with the coronavirus are being treated. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI/PARIS (REUTERS) - An 80-year-old Chinese tourist infected with the coronavirus has died in France, Paris said on Saturday (Feb 15), becoming the first fatality in Europe and the fourth outside mainland China from an epidemic that has rattled the world.

The Chinese man died at the Bichat hospital in Paris of a lung infection due to the flu-like virus, authorities said.

"We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France," said Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.

Robin Thompson, an expert in mathematical epidemiology at Britain's University of Oxford, said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising. "The most important thing to point out, however, is that there still hasn't been sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe," he added.

Thought to have come from a wildlife market in the central Chinese province of Hubei, the outbreak has presented the ruling Communist Party with a huge challenge in curbing its spread while minimising damage to the world's second-largest economy.

Beijing's latest figures on Saturday showed 66,492 cases and 1,523 deaths, mostly in Hubei. Outside mainland China, there have been about 500 cases in some two dozen countries and territories, with four deaths - in Japan, Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, the Philippines and France.

After an extended Chinese New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country.

Those returning to Beijing from the holiday have been ordered to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine to prevent the virus' spread. Many factories are yet to re-open, disrupting global supply chains for everyone from smartphone makers to car manufacturers.

While there has been some hope expressed this week that the disease may be peaking in China, numbers keep rising and a trend has been hard to discern, especially after a reclassification that widened the definition of cases.

The biggest cluster outside China has been on a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, quarantined off Japan's Yokohama. Out of about 3,700 passengers and crew on board, 285 people have tested positive and been sent to hospital.

The United States said on Saturday that it plans to send an aircraft to pick up American passengers and take them back home where they face another two weeks of isolation "out of an abundance of caution".

"They are very concerned about spreading the virus, and there's no good way to transport people from Japan without possible transfer of the virus, so it is the logical thing to do," passenger Sawyer Smith, 25, told Reuters.

The United States has imposed some of the toughest curbs on travellers from China, going beyond World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations and offending Beijing.

In Hong Kong, which has seen months of anti-Beijing protests, hundreds marched on Saturday to demand full closure of the border with mainland China and to oppose plans to turn some buildings into quarantine hubs.

"Doing that (opening such centres) is like creating more wounds rather than trying to stop the bleeding," said Chan Mei-lin among the protesters. TV images showed police making some arrests and using pepper spray.

The sickness, now officially labelled Covid-19, has killed around 2 per cent of those infected. Cases have spread faster than other respiratory viruses this century.

A senior Chinese official sought to project optimism. "The impact of the epidemic on the Chinese economy will be short term and temporary," foreign affairs vice minister Qin Gang said at the Munich Security Conference. "When the epidemic is over, the subdued consumer demand will be released rapidly and the economy will rebound strongly."

The Chinese central bank said on Saturday the country's lenders will tolerate higher levels of bad loans as part of efforts to support firms hit by the epidemic.

The economic ripple effects go far beyond China, with supply chain disruptions affecting multiple companies worldwide.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the coronavirus might knock two- to three-tenths of a percent off US growth in the first quarter.

The sporting world has suffered too, with Chinese gymnasts bound for next week's World Cup in Melbourne the latest victims, forced to cancel due to Australian travel curbs.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.