BEIJING/TOKYO (Reuters) – Hundreds of people began disembarking a quarantined cruise ship off Japan on Wednesday as the death toll from the new coronavirus in mainland China passed 2,000 and the number of new cases in the country fell for a second straight day.
A member of the media approaches a passenger after he walked out from the cruise ship Diamond Princess at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The slight decline in new cases helped Asian shares and U.S. stock futures rise as investors tried to shake off worries about the epidemic.
But China, the world’s second-largest economy, is struggling to get its manufacturing sector back on track after imposing severe travel restrictions to contain a virus that emerged in the central province of Hubei late last year.
About 500 passengers were due to leave the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise liner docked at Yokohama near Tokyo, NHK reported, ending an ordeal that began when the ship was quarantined on Feb. 3 after a former passenger was diagnosed with the virus in Hong Kong.
The biggest concentration of infections outside China has been on the liner owned by Carnival Corp, with more than 540 people infected out of about 3,700 passengers and crew on board when the quarantine was imposed.
The United States has flown home more than 300 American evacuees from the ship and other countries are queuing up to collect their citizens, including Australians, whose flight was due to arrive in Japan later on Wednesday.
“We were lucky. We booked a room with a balcony and a lounge area, but after being confined to this cabin – I am very keen to get off this ship,” Australian passenger Vicki Presland told Reuters.
Only passengers who had tested negative for the virus and did not show symptoms during quarantine would be allowed to leave the ship. Those who tested negative but were in cabins with infected people would remain on board for additional quarantine, Japanese officials said.
Japan faces growing criticism over its response to the outbreak though officials defended the decision to quarantine the ship and test people on board.
“Unfortunately, cases of infection have emerged, but we have to the extent possible taken appropriate steps to prevent serious cases, including sending infected people to hospital,” NHK quoted Health Minister Katsunobu Kato as saying.
The promising sign out of China came from the National Health Commission, which reported the lowest daily rise in new infections since Jan. 29, or 1,749 new confirmed cases. Hubei – 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 more than 74,000 and the death toll to 2,004, three-quarters of which have occurred in Wuhan, Hubei’s provincial capital. Six people have died outside mainland China, including a new fatality announced on Wednesday in Hong Kong.
On top of tough steps already taken to isolate Hubei, where the flu-like virus originated in a market illegally selling wildlife, state media reported the province was stepping up efforts to track down anyone with fever.
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, Xinhua reported.
Chinese officials have said the apparent slowdown in infection rates is evidence that the strict measures are working but global health officials say it is too early to predict how the epidemic will play out.
The number of new cases in mainland China excluding Hubei has fallen for 15 straight days. The number of new infections outside Hubei totaled 56 on Feb. 18, down from a peak of 890 on Feb 3.
The head of a major hospital in Wuhan died of the disease on Tuesday, the seventh health worker to have succumbed to the virus, known as COVID-19.
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.
Ryan also said there were no indications the coronavirus was infecting people in North Korea. Some South Korean media outlets have reported multiple cases and possible deaths in the secretive North.
Chinese officials have been putting on a brave face saying the economic impact of the virus would be limited and short-term. President Xi Jinping said China could meet its 2020 economic targets, media reported.
Despite that optimism, foreign analysts have issued a flurry of downgrades and China’s economy is still struggling, with many factories closed and others limping back to work after a New Year break that was extended because of the outbreak.
The impact is rippling around the world with global supply chains disrupted for firms like Apple Inc and major automakers.
Data suggests Japan and Singapore are on the brink of recession while South Korea’s president said its economy was in an emergency.
Economists are warning of the possibility of mass layoffs in China this year if the virus is not contained soon.
Reporting by Ryan Woo and Sophie Yu in Beijing; Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Se Young Lee in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Colin Packham in Sydney; Sarah Wu in Hong Kong; Krishna Das in Kuala Lumpur; Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Writing by Michael Perry & Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates & Simon Cameron-Moore