BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – The new coronavirus has infected about 500 people in China’s prisons, almost half outside the province at the centre of the epidemic, authorities said on Friday, while South Korea reported 100 new cases that doubled its infections.
The overall increase in new cases in China was relatively small, but changes in how it defines them have raised questions about the accuracy of its daily tallies – and the 234 infections among prisoners outside Hubei ended 16 straight days of declines in new mainland cases excluding that province.
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According to official figures, China has had more than 75,400 cases of the coronavirus and 2,236 people have died of the disease – known as COVID-19 – most in Hubei and its capital Wuhan where the virus emerged in a wildlife market in December.
As international authorities tried to stop the virus from becoming a global pandemic, China’s Vice Science and Technology Minister Xu Nanping said its earliest vaccine would be submitted for clinical trials around late April.
With finance leaders from the Group of 20 major economies set to discuss risks to the world economy in Saudi Arabia at the weekend, the International Monetary Fund said it was too early to tell what impact the virus would have on global growth.
However, Asian shares dipped as fears over the creeping spread of the disease sent funds fleeing to the sheltered shores of U.S. assets, lifting the dollar to three-year highs.
“COVID-19 anxiety has risen to a new level amid concerns of virus outbreaks in Beijing and outside of China,” said Rodrigo Catril, a senior FX strategist at NAB.
The spike in cases in two jails outside Hubei – in the northern province of Shandong and the eastern province of Zhejiang – made up most of the 258 newly confirmed cases outside the epicentre province on Friday.
Authorities said officials deemed responsible for the outbreaks had been fired and the government had sent a team to investigate the bigger outbreak, in Shandong, media reported.
Hubei also revised up its number of confirmed infection cases by 220 to account for cases in its prisons.
Provincial officials did not say when the 271 cases in two jails in that province had been diagnosed but 230 of them were in a women’s prison in Wuhan, according to the Hubei Daily.
Data showed mainland China had 889 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections as of Feb. 20, up from 394 cases a day earlier. The death toll rose by 118, with most in Wuhan, which remains under virtual lockdown.
Gansu province in the northwest lowered its coronavirus emergency response measures, making it the first region in China to do so, after only one new case over the past week.
But someone who was discharged from hospital in Chengdu city in the southwest tested positive again during a quarantine period at home, and the Communist Party newspaper warned that it would be mistake to think victory was in sight.
“If we give in to blind self-confidence, the epidemic could rebound and the virus exploit us when we are off guard,” the People’s Daily said.
The virus has emerged in 26 countries and territories outside mainland China – killing 11 people, according to a Reuters tally – with South Korea the latest hot spot with 100 new cases taking its total to 204.
Most South Korean cases are in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million, where scores were infected in what authorities described as a “super-spreading event” at a church, traced to an infected 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended services.
South Korean officials designated the two areas as “special care zones” where additional resources will be deployed, including military medical staff, and isolation facilities to help hospitals.
Malls, restaurants and streets in Daegu were largely empty with the mayor calling the outbreak an “unprecedented crisis”.
In Hong Kong, which has confirmed 69 cases and two deaths, dozens of police officers were quarantined after an officer tested positive following a banquet on Tuesday.
GOOD SHAPE OR BAD?
Another hot spot has been the Diamond Princess cruise ship held under quarantine in Japan since Feb. 3.
Japan, which has faced criticism of the handling of the onboard quarantine, reported the deaths of two elderly passengers on Thursday, the first fatalities from aboard the ship where more than 630 cases account for the biggest cluster of infection outside China.
As G20 finance ministers prepared to meet, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said she hoped the economic impact of the virus would be “a V shaped curve” with a sharp decline in China and sharp rebound after containment of the virus.
“But we are not excluding that it might turn to be a different scenario,” she said.
China’s commerce ministry said it is looking into more financial measures to support companies.
Fears of contagion triggered violence in Ukraine, where residents of a town clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from Hubei to a quarantine centre.
Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang and Huizhong Wu in Beijing, Cynthia Kim and Joori Roh in Seoul, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Elaine Lies, Chang-Ran Kim and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Colin Packham in Sydney, Donny Kwok in Hong Kong, Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat; Writing by Stephen Coates & Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and John Stonestreet
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