An 80-year-old Chinese tourist infected with the coronavirus has died in France, the first fatality in Europe and the fourth outside mainland China from an epidemic that has shut Chinese factories, curbed travel and disrupted global supply chains.
The outbreak, thought to have originated at a wildlife market in the central Chinese province of Hubei, has presented China’s ruling Communist Party with the huge challenge of halting its spread while at the same time minimizing damage to the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing’s latest figures on Saturday showed 66,492 cases of the illness and 1,523 deaths, mostly in Hubei. Outside mainland China there have been about 500 cases in some two dozen countries and territories, with four deaths – in Japan, Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, the Philippines and France.
In the French case, the Chinese man died at the Bichat Hospital in Paris of a lung infection due to the flu-like virus, authorities said on Saturday.
“We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France,” said Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.
Robin Thompson, an expert in mathematical epidemiology at Britain’s University of Oxford, said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising. “The most important thing to point out, however, is that there still hasn’t been sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe,” he added.
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country.
Those returning to Beijing from the holiday have been ordered to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus. Many factories are yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains for everyone from smartphone makers to car manufacturers.
While there has been some hope expressed this week that the disease may be peaking in China, numbers keep rising and a trend has been hard to discern, especially after a reclassification that widened the definition of cases.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was impossible to tell where the epidemic will spread.
“We are concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China,” Tedros told the Munich Security Conference in Germany. “…We are concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community.
“Most of all, we are concerned about the potential havoc this virus could wreak in countries with weaker health systems.”