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China Virus Cases Surpass SARS as Big Economic Hit Looms

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Infection from China’s coronavirus spread to more than 8,100 people globally on Thursday, surpassing the total from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic in a fast-spreading health crisis forecast to deal a heavy blow to the world’s second-largest economy.

The vast majority of infections are in China where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan and has also claimed 170 lives, latest official data showed.

More than 100 cases have emerged in other countries, from Japan to the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which has so far held off declaring the flu-like coronavirus a global emergency, began another meeting in Geneva to reconsider.

Such a declaration would trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence in defeating the “devil” virus.

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It could also further spook markets, already shuddering at the ripple effects of damage to China’s economy.

“The fear is that they (the WHO) might raise the alarm bells … so people are taking money off the table,” said Chris Weston, head of research at Melbourne brokerage Pepperstone.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome also came from China, killing about 800 people and costing the global economy an estimated $33 billion, or 0.1% of world GDP, in 2003.

Economists fear the impact on global growth could be bigger this time as China now accounts for a larger share of the world economy. One Chinese economist has forecast the crisis would lop a percentage point off China’s first-quarter growth.

Global stocks tumbled on Thursday, while the yuan hit its lowest this year, oil prices slid again and safe haven assets like gold gained.

The main stock index in Taiwan, 40% of whose exports go to neighboring China, closed down 5.75% on the first day of trade after the Lunar New Year holiday.

LOCKDOWN IN WUHAN

Almost all the deaths have been in Hubei province – of which Wuhan is the capital – where 60 million people are now living under virtual lockdown, only venturing outside with masks.

“Most of the shops are closed. We cannot go out and buy food,” Si Thu Tun, one of 60 students from Myanmar trapped in Wuhan, told online news outlet the Democratic Voice of Burma.

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“Honestly, I have one big potato and three packs of instant noodles and some rice,” he said. Myanmar plans a special flight to get the students out within three days.

Australia, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia were quarantining evacuees for at least two weeks, though the United States and Japan planned shorter, voluntary isolation.

Three Japanese, from 206 evacuated on Wednesday, were infected, and worryingly two of them had not shown symptoms, Tokyo said. A second Japanese flight included nine people showing fever or coughing symptoms, broadcaster NHK said.

India was the latest nation to report a case, a student of Wuhan University. And South Koreans protested at facilities earmarked as quarantine centers, throwing eggs at a minister.

“The weapons that will protect us from the new coronavirus are not fear and aversion, but trust and cooperation,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in as Seoul prepared to evacuate the first of about 700 citizens from Wuhan.

An Italian cruise ship’s 6,000 passengers were kept on board while tests were held on two Chinese travelers.

The crisis has stoked a wave of anti-China sentiment around the globe, from shops barring tourists to online mockery.

‘WHEN CHINA SLOWS, WE FEEL IT’

In the corporate world, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Sweden’s IKEA were the latest big names to close China operations. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics extended holiday closure for some Chinese production facilities.

Airlines to suspend flights to mainland China include Lufthansa, Air Canada, American Airlines and British Airways. Air France cabin crew unions were demanding the same, sources said, though the company has already allowed pilots and crew to opt out of China flights.

Fuelling concern over damage to productivity, thousands of Chinese factory workers on Lunar New Year holidays may struggle to get back to work next week, due to travel restrictions.

Policymakers are anxious, with China dominating U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s news conference on Wednesday. “China’s economy is very important in the global economy now, and when China’s economy slows down we do feel that,” he said.

Streets in many Chinese cities were largely deserted and tourist attractions shut. Starbucks coffee shops were requiring temperature checks and masks.

Cases of human-to-human transmission outside China are of particular concern to medics, but it is too early to determine how lethal the coronavirus is, as there are likely to be many cases of milder infections going undetected.

It has an incubation time of between one and 14 days.

With local officials facing a backlash from China’s public, especially over their early response, the health chief of Huanggang city – also in Hubei province, with a population of 7.5 million – was dismissed, authorities said.

No explanation was given.

(Reporting by Pei Li, Gabriel Crossley, Cate Cadell, Kevin Yao and Muyu Xu in Beijing; Samuel Shen and David Stanway in Shanghai; Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha and Joyce Lee in Seoul, Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo and Se Young Lee; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Kate Kelland in London; Crispian Balmer in Rome; Thu Thu Aung in Yangon; Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

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