BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – The coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in Chinese prisons, authorities said on Friday, contributing to a jump in reported cases beyond the epicentre in Hubei province, including 100 more in South Korea.
The 234 infections among prisoners outside Hubei ended 16 straight days of declines in new mainland cases excluding that province, where the virus first emerged in December in its now locked-down capital, Wuhan.
State television quoted Communist Party rulers as saying the outbreak had not yet peaked, and more than 30 cases in a hospital in Beijing highlighted a sharp jump in the tally there.
Total cases in the capital of the coronavirus – known as COVID-19 – were at 396 with four deaths, out of an official mainland toll of 75,400 cases and 2,236 deaths.
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U.S. stock index futures lurched downwards as the rise in infections sent investors looking for safer assets such as gold and government bonds.
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Adding to the gloomy mood, data showed Japan’s factory activity suffered its steepest contraction in seven years in February, underlining the risk of a recession there as the impact of the outbreak spreads. Asian and European stocks also fell.
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.
“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.
Chinese Vice Science and Technology Minister Xu Nanping said China’s earliest vaccine would be submitted for clinical trials around late April. That timetable is in line with research in other countries, and a World Health Organization estimate of a vaccine reaching the market in about 18 months.
As international authorities seek to stop the virus from becoming a global pandemic, public health officials are hoping for signs that the arrival of warmer weather in the northern hemisphere might slow its spread.
The spike in cases in two jails outside Hubei – in the northern province of Shandong and Zhejiang in the east – made up most of the 258 newly confirmed Chinese infections 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 Shandong episode, media reported.
Hubei also reported 271 cases in its prisons. Provincial officials did not say when they had been diagnosed.
Data showed mainland China had 889 new confirmed cases and 118 deaths, with the most in Wuhan, which remains under virtual lockdown.
The virus has emerged in 26 countries and territories outside mainland China, killing 11 people, according to a Reuters tally.
South Korea is the latest hot spot with 100 new cases taking its total to 204, most in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million, where scores were infected in what authorities called a “super-spreading event” at a church, traced to an infected 61-year-old woman who attended services.
South Korean officials designated Daegu and neighbouring Cheongdo county as special care zones where additional medical staff and isolation facilities will be deployed. Malls, restaurants and streets in the city were largely empty with the mayor calling the outbreak an “unprecedented crisis”.
Another centre of infection has been the Diamond Princess cruise ship held under quarantine in Japan since Feb. 3.
Japan 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.
A plane carrying 129 Canadians evacuated from the ship has landed in Ontario, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said on Friday. All repatriated passengers on the chartered flight had tested negative, CBC News said.
In the Iranian city of Qom, state TV showed voters in the parliamentary election wearing surgical masks.
The country confirmed 13 new cases, two of whom had died. Most have been in Qom, a Shi’ite Muslim holy city where health officials on Thursday called for all religious gatherings to be suspended.
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.
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