The death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak rose again on Tuesday but Chinese and international health officials sought to calm global nerves, citing a study showing most cases are mild and warning against excessive measures to contain the epidemic.
Nearly 1,900 people have now died and more than 72,000 people have been infected by the virus in China, with hundreds more cases in some 25 countries.
The epidemic has triggered panic-buying in Singapore and Hong Kong, concerns about cruise-ship travel and the postponement of trade fairs, sports competitions and cultural events in China and abroad.
The outbreak is threatening to put a dent in the global economy, with China paralysed by vast quarantine measures and major firms such as iPhone maker Apple and mining giant BHP warning it could damage bottom lines.
Several countries have banned travellers from China and major airlines have suspended flights.
The World Health Organization, which has previously said travel restrictions were unnecessary, rejected the suggestion that all cruises should be halted after hundreds of passengers were infected on one vessel off Japan.
“Measures should be taken proportional to the situation. Blanket measures may not help,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
The WHO has praised China for taking drastic measures to contain the virus.
Authorities have placed about 56 million people in hard-hit central Hubei under an unprecedented lockdown.
Other cities far from the epicentre have restricted the movements of residents, while Beijing ordered people arriving in the capital to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine.
– WHO urges calm –
The official death toll in China hit 1,868 Tuesday after another 98 people died, most in Hubei and its capital Wuhan, where the virus emerged in December.
There were nearly 1,900 new cases — a drop from the previous day. Reported new infections have been falling in the rest of the country for the past two weeks.
Tedros warned that it was too early to tell if the decline would continue.
The situation remains dire at the epicentre, with the director of a Wuhan hospital dying on Tuesday — the seventh medical worker to succumb to the COVID-19 illness.
But a study among 72,000 confirmed, suspected and clinically diagnosed cases showed that 81 percent of patients had only mild infections.
Those most at risk were the elderly, and people with underlying medical conditions.
The study released by China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also showed that the death rate stood at 2.3 percent, falling below one percent for people in their 30s and 40s.
Zhong Nanshan, a prominent expert with China’s National Health Commission, told reporters that 85 percent of patients can improve “if they have good life support, treatment conditions, and nutrients”.
The research was cited by WHO officials, who said the COVID-19 illness was “less deadly” than its cousins, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
“This is a very serious outbreak and it has the potential to grow, but we need to balance that in terms of the number of people infected,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies programme.
“Outside Hubei this epidemic is affecting a very, very tiny, tiny proportion of people.”
There have been some 900 cases around the world, with only five deaths outside the mainland — in France, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
– Cruise concerns –
Another 88 people tested positive for the virus on the quarantined Diamond Prince cruise ship off Yokohama in Japan, raising the number of infections to 542,
Since the US repatriated more than 300 American passengers on Monday, Britain became the latest country to offer its citizens a way off the boat, after similar plans by Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Attention was also turning to the Westerdam, a cruise ship in Cambodia, where many of the 2,200 people aboard passengers were allowed to disembark after all initially received a clean bill of health.
They were met by Cambodia’s premier, taken on a bus tour of the country’s capital, and allowed to fly around the world.
But an 83-year-old American woman was later diagnosed with the virus after arriving in Malaysia.
– Economic fears –
Despite the WHO’s reassurances, global concerns persist, with an international inventions show in Geneva postponed, a mixed martial arts event in Singapore closing to the public, and Chinese wrestlers barred from the Asian Championships in India.
Supply chains of global firms such as Apple supplier Foxconn have been disrupted as factories in China were temporarily closed.
Apple said it did not expect to meet its revenue guidance for the March quarter, as worldwide iPhone supply would be “temporarily constrained” and demand in China was affected.
BHP, the world’s biggest miner, warned that demand for resources could be hit, with oil, copper and steel use all set to decline if the disease continues to spread.