By Ryan Woo and Linda Sieg
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.
Around 500 passengers were due to disembark the virus-hit Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama near Tokyo, public broadcaster NHK said, ending an ordeal that began on Feb. 3 after a former passenger was diagnosed with the virus in Hong Kong.
There were also more promising signs out of China, where the National Health Commission reported the lowest daily rise in new infections since Jan. 29, or 1,749 new confirmed cases. 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 and the total death toll to 2,004, three quarters of which have occurred in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan. Six people have died outside mainland China, including a new fatality announced on Wednesday in Hong Kong.
The biggest concentration of infections outside of China was aboard the Carnival (NYSE:) Corp-owned Diamond Princess, with more than 540 people infected out of about 3,700 passengers and crew who were on board when the quarantine was imposed.
The United States has already flown back over 300 American evacuees from the ship and other countries are queuing up to collect their citizens, including an Australian flight 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.
Many of those infected have been transferred to hospitals and those passengers and crew who had shared a room with people testing positive would have to stay on board longer, Japanese officials said.
FEVER MEDICATION CHECKS
In China, where the flu-like virus originated late last year, state media reported that Hubei province 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.
Chinese officials have said the apparent slowdown in infection rates is evidence that such strict measures are working to bring the virus under control, 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 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 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.
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.
Ryan also said there were no indications the new coronavirus was infecting people in North Korea. Some South Korean media outlets have reported multiple cases and possible deaths in the secretive North.
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.
Foreign ministers from China and Southeast Asia will meet in Vientiane, Laos, on Thursday to explore ways to cooperate in dealing with the outbreak, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said.
China is the biggest trade partner for many Southeast Asian economies that are hurting badly because of the epidemic.
Data this week from Japan and Singapore indicated those economies are on the brink of recession, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his country’s economy is in an emergency situation.