Coronavirus cases outside China 'could be spark' for bigger fire: WHO

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday the spread of coronavirus among those who had no history of travel to China could be “the spark that becomes a bigger fire” as people across China trickled back to work.
Security guards check the body temperature of a person passing by at a road blockade in Guangzhou, China, on Feb 10, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING/GENEVA (REUTERS) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday (Feb 10) the spread of coronavirus cases among people who have not been to China could be "the spark that becomes a bigger fire" and the human race must not let the epidemic get out of control.

On Tuesday, the death toll in China passed the 1,000 mark as the number rose to 1,011 after hard-hit Hubei province reported 103 new deaths.

There are now more than 42,200 confirmed cases across China, and more than 300 cases in 24 other countries, including one death.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew on board remained quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 65 more cases detected, taking the number of confirmed cases from the Carnival Corp-owned vessel to 135.

As scientists race to develop tests and treatments, the WHO says 168 labs globally have the right technology to diagnose the virus. More companies have been struggling to find clinical virus samples to validate the tests they have developed.

Worries about the coronavirus kept investors on edge, with safe havens like gold rising and the dollar hitting a four-month high against the euro on Monday.

In Europe, shares in car companies exposed to China slumped, while prices of oil, iron ore and copper fell on worries over weaker Chinese demand because of the outbreak.

British Airways cancelled all its flights to mainland China until the end of March.

Across mainland China, where people were trickling back to work after an extended Chinese New Year holiday, 3,062 new infections were confirmed on Sunday, according to the National Health Commission.

Dr Wu Fan, vice-dean of Shanghai Fudan University Medical school, said there was hope of a turning point in the outbreak.

But WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there had been "concerning instances" of transmission from people who had not been to China.

"It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire," he told reporters in Geneva. "But for now it is only a spark. Our objective remains containment.

"We should really fight hard as one human race to fight this virus before it gets out of control," he said.

An advance team of international WHO experts has arrived in China to investigate.

"This mission brings together the best of Chinese science, Chinese public health with the best of the world's public health," Dr Mike Ryan, director of the WHO's health emergencies programme, said.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month, returned with an agreement on sending an international mission.

It took nearly two weeks to get the green light from the Chinese government on the team, led by Canadian emergency expert Dr Bruce Aylward.

The death toll from the outbreak has now surpassed that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed hundreds worldwide in 2002/2003.


Chinese cities have become virtual ghost towns after Communist Party rulers ordered lockdowns, cancelled flights and closed factories and schools.

Ten extra days had been added to the Chinese New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January. But even on Monday, many workplaces remained closed as people worked from home.

Few commuters braved the morning rush hour on one of Beijing's busiest subway lines. All wore masks.

One Beijing government official, Mr Zhang Gewho, said it would be harder to curb the spread of the virus as people returned to work.

"The capacity of communities and flow of people will greatly increase, and the difficulty," he said.

Hubei, the province of 60 million people that is the hardest hit by the outbreak, remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and roads sealed.

In Britain, the government said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases there had doubled to eight. It declared the virus a serious and imminent threat, giving it additional powers to isolate those suspected of being infected.

China's central bank has taken steps to support the economy, including reducing interest rates and flushing the market with liquidity, and will also now provide special funds for banks to lend to businesses.

President Xi Jinping said the government would prevent large-scale layoffs, Chinese state television reported.

Mr Xi was shown on television inspecting the work of community leaders in Beijing and wearing a mask as he had his temperature taken. He said China would strive to meet economic and social targets for the year.

One senior economist has said growth may slow to 5 per cent or less in the first quarter.

More than 300 Chinese firms including Meituan Dianping, China's largest food delivery company, and smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp were seeking loans totalling at least 57.4 billion yuan (S$11.4 billion), banking sources said.

E-commerce firm Alibaba said its affiliate, Ant Financial's MYBank unit, would offer 20 billion yuan in loans to companies in China, with preferential terms for Hubei firms.

Apple's biggest iPhone maker, Foxconn, won approval to resume production in the eastern central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, but only 10 per cent of the workforce managed to return, a source said. It won approval to resume partial production in the southern city of Shenzhen from Tuesday.

A prolonged and widespread coronavirus outbreak could hit the Japanese economy, affecting tourism, retail and exports, an International Monetary Fund official said.

Canada said the outbreak will hit tourism and the oil industry.

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