BEIJING, Feb 8 (Reuters) - A 60-year-old American has died of the new coronavirus, the first confirmed non-Chinese death of the illness, U.S. officials said, as millions of Chinese began returning home after a Lunar New Year break that was extended to try to contain the outbreak.
While the vast majority of cases have been in China, the virus has spread to some two dozen countries abroad, with the latest such cases including five British nationals infected in a French ski resort.
The American man died on Thursday in Wuhan, epi center of the virus outbreak in the central Chinese province of Hubei, a U.S. embassy spokesman said in Beijing on Saturday.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” he told Reuters. “Out of the respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
A Japanese man in his sixties and hospitalized with pneumonia in Wuhan also died after suffering symptoms consistent with the new coronavirus, Japan’s foreign ministry said.
The death toll in mainland China rose to 722 on Saturday, according to authorities, and is poised to pass the 774 deaths recorded globally during the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Most of the deaths in China have occurred in and around Wuhan. Across mainland China, the number of cases stood at 31,774 as of Saturday.
The virus has spread to 27 countries and regions, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside of mainland China - in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Both victims were Chinese nationals.
The latest patients include five British nationals staying in the same chalet at a ski resort in Haute-Savoie in southeastern France, health officials said, raising fears of further infections as British families head for the Alps during the school half-term holidays.
The five had stayed in the same ski chalet with a person who had been in Singapore. They were not in a serious condition, the officials said.
The Chinese economy will sputter towards normal on Monday, as millions return from the provinces to the big cities after the biggest holiday of the year. The holiday was extended, but many workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers will continue to work from home.
U.S. electric car maker Tesla’s factory in Shanghai will resume production on Monday, a government official said on Saturday.
Apple Inc said it was working to reopen its China corporate offices and call centers and was making preparations to reopen retail stores there. But Chinese authorities have blocked a plan by Apple supplier Foxconn to resume production from Feb. 10 over concerns about the spread of the virus, Japan’s Nikkei business daily reported on Saturday.
The virus has been a blow to China’s already-slowing economy, with Goldman Sachs cutting its first-quarter GDP growth target to 4% from 5.6% previously and saying a deeper hit is possible.
“It’s certainly not going to be a return to normal next week,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics in Singapore.
“The longer this disruption continues the higher the risk it affects employment and the higher the risk of a much bigger hit on the economy,” he said.
Health officials are still uncertain how deadly the illness is.
“It is hard to say how lethal this novel coronavirus infection is,” Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University in Melbourne, told Reuters.
“While the crude mortality appears to be around 2%, there are likely to be many people who have been infected that haven’t been tested ... We probably won’t know the true case fatality for some time yet.”
News of the death on Friday of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was reprimanded by police for raising the alarm about the new coronavirus, sparked outrage on Chinese social media and rekindled memories of how Beijing was slow to tell the world about the SARS outbreak.
Beijing’s communist leadership has sealed off cities, canceled flights and closed factories to contain the epidemic, a response that has had ripple effects globally for financial markets and businesses dependent on the world’s second-biggest economy.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong introduced a two-week quarantine on Saturday for all people arriving from the mainland, or who have been there during the previous 14 days.
While China is bearing the brunt of the virus, anxiety is increasing across Asia, with Japan alarmed by the rising number of cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship, major foreign companies pulling out of an international air show in Singapore, and Thailand losing money as Chinese tourists stay home.
Another three people on the cruise liner off Japan tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases from the ship to 64, Japan’s health ministry said.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd on Friday banned “any guests holding Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passports, regardless of when they were there last” from boarding the company’s ships.
The World Health Organization warned on Friday warned against the “unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity.”