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By Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from the new coronavirus in mainland China passed 2,000 on Wednesday although the number of new cases fell for a second straight day, as authorities tightened already severe containment measures in the worst-hit city of Wuhan.
China’s National Health Commission reported 1,749 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, the lowest daily rise since Jan. 29, while Hubei province – the epicenter of the outbreak – reported the lowest number of new infections since Feb. 11.
The latest figures bring the total number of cases in China to over 74,000 with 2,004 deaths, three quarters of which have occurred in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan. The city of 11 million people, where the virus first appeared last year, is under virtual lockdown.
Chinese officials have said the apparent slowdown in infection rates is evidence the flu-like virus is being brought under control but global health officials say it is still to early to predict how the epidemic will play out.
The head of a leading hospital in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, died of the disease on Tuesday, the seventh health worker to have succumbed to the disease, known as COVID-19.
Chinese state media reported that Hubei would adopt more forceful measures to find patients with fever to help contain the epidemic, on top of steps already taken to isolate the province.
The province will check records of all fever patients who have visited doctors since Jan. 20, and people who have bought over-the-counter cough and fever medications at both brick-and-mortar and online drug stores, Xinhua reported, citing a notice by the province’s epidemic control headquarters.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies program chief, Mike Ryan, said China had success with “putting out the fire” first in Hubei and ensuring that people returning to Beijing from the Lunar New Year holiday were monitored.
“Right now, the strategic and tactical approach in China is the correct one,” Ryan said.
The number of new cases in mainland China excluding Hubei has now fallen for 15 straight days. The number of new infections ex-Hubei totaled 56 on Feb. 18, down from a peak of 890 on Feb 3.
The biggest cluster of infections outside of China is on a cruise ship in quarantine off Japan, where more than 540 out of 3,700 passengers and crew have tested positive.
Around 500 passengers were set to disembark on Wednesday, although those sharing a room with people testing positive would have to stay on board longer, Japanese media and officials said. Many of those infected have already been transferred to hospitals. About half the passengers are Japanese.
A jet brought seven people from the ship to South Korea on Wednesday and Australia is expected to evacuate more than 200 of its citizens from the ship later in the day.
The United States evacuated about 400 citizens from the Diamond Princess on Sunday, while Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy and Taiwan have plans to repatriate passengers.
Outside China, there have been 827 cases of the disease, and five deaths, according to a Reuters count based on official statements.
Despite global concerns about the economic impact of the disease, China’s ambassador to the European Union said on Tuesday this would be “limited, short-term and manageable” and that Beijing had enough resources to step in if needed.
Chinese state television quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China could still meet its economic growth target for 2020 despite the epidemic.
In a vote of confidence that the virus would not inflict lasting long-term damage on China’s economy, a source said a Chinese fund attracted about 120 billion yuan ($17.1 billion) of subscriptions on Tuesday, 20 times the target.
The mutual fund, which can invest up to 95% of assets in stocks, aimed to raise 6 billion yuan, but the marketing campaign was cut short by the outpouring of interest.
Even so, the short-term impacts are playing havoc with trade and business around the world.
Britain’s biggest carmaker, Jaguar Land Rover, has flown Chinese parts in suitcases to Britain to maintain production and could run out after two weeks because of the coronavirus.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the economy there was in an emergency situation and required stimulus as the epidemic had disrupted demand for South Korean goods such as cars, computer chips and smartphones.
Data this week from Japan and Singapore indicated those economies were on the brink of recession.