Fears of global spread increase as new cases emerge.
The coronavirus outbreak showed dangerous signs of breaking out beyond China on Friday, as new cases were reported in the Middle East and large clusters emerged around Asia.
Countries were closing their borders with Iran as health officials scrambled to make sense of reports out of Tehran suggesting that the virus was being transmitted more widely than officials there have publicly acknowledged.
As recently as Tuesday, Iranian officials had said there were no cases of the virus in the country. By Friday, however, they acknowledged 18 cases in three cities, with four deaths.
It was not immediately known how the virus made its way to Iran. But the numbers suggested wider transmission that, if verified, would raise the chances of a pandemic.
At the same time, a surge in cases in South Korea — where the total figure soared above 200 on Friday and scores more were being monitored for symptoms — added to fears that the virus was also spreading across Asia with dangerous speed.
Those cases have been tied to a secretive church.The South Korean authorities are racing to trace people who have come into contact with the infected congregation members, but have struggled to find all of those connected to the church’s hundreds of members.
And in China there was concern that the virus could spread beyond its starting point in Hubei Province after officials reported outbreaks in hospitals in Beijing and clusters of infections in at least four prisons across three provinces.
The disturbing new clusters were announced on the same day that Chinese officials acknowledged that their repeated shifts in methodology for counting new cases had sown confusion.
Officials in Hubei revised their case tallies again because of shifting definitions of a confirmed case and what officials described as previously unknown information.
The acknowledgment by provincial leaders came as national officials announced that 889 new coronavirus cases had been reported in China in the previous 24 hours, raising the overall total above 75,000. The death toll went up by 118, to 2,236.
China is now counting “lab-confirmed” and “suspect” cases. On Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, praised that decision as “adding clarity” and noted that the same approach was used in Ebola outbreaks, in which many people die without every case being laboratory tested.
New clusters of the virus are found in China’s prisons.
China faced a new front in the coronavirus epidemic on Friday as officials reported clusters of infections in at least four prisons in three provinces. The outbreaks, affecting at least 512 prisoners and guards, raised the specter of the disease spreading through the country’s extensive prison system.
Two of the prisons are in Hubei Province, where the epidemic originated. Wuhan Women’s Prison reported 230 confirmed cases, while 41 prisoners tested positive in Hanjin Prison in Shayang County, to the west, according to a statement on the provincial government’s website.
In Shandong Province, officials said 207 cases had emerged in a prison in the city of Jining, 450 miles east of Wuhan. The outbreak prompted the local authorities to dismiss the director and party secretary of the provincial justice department, which oversees the prisons there, along with seven other officials.
The cases there may have spread from a prison guard who developed a cough on Feb. 12 and tested positive for the virus the next day, according to a statement by the provincial government. A second guard was also found to have the virus that day, prompting the prison authorities to begin screening the entire prison population.
In all, 2,077 inmates and prison workers were tested in Shandong, with 200 prisoners and seven guards testing positive for the coronavirus. No deaths have been reported.
The Shandong government is carrying out inspections at other prisons and medical centers where prisoners are being treated for illnesses, including drug and alcohol addiction. It also plans “to quickly set up a hospital” on prison grounds to treat those infected, the statement said.
A similar outbreak in Zhejiang Province prompted the dismissal of a warden and a party secretary at a prison in the city of Quzhou. The facility reported 27 new infections on Friday, according to a report in China Daily, bringing the number of prisoners infected there to 34. A prison guard is also believed to be the source of those infections.
Auto sales plummet 92 percent in China amid worker shortage.
Auto sales in China collapsed this month as the coronavirus epidemic paralyzed the country’s economy.
The China Passenger Car Association said Friday that sales at dealerships had plummeted 92 percent in the first half of February compared with the same period last year. “The retail market for passenger cars was frozen” particularly in the first week, the association said.
China is the world’s biggest car market by a wide margin. So a nose dive in sales there hurts the global industry. Daimler, a German carmaker that depends heavily on Chinese buyers, warned Friday that the virus could dent its sales this year.
Mass quarantines across China have caused a severe shortage of workers. That has left many auto parts manufacturers struggling to keep supply chains full for plants around the world.
With shoppers staying home, automakers have less need for their giant assembly plants in China. Those that have reopened have begun only limited production.
But Yale Zhang, the managing director of Automotive Foresight, a Shanghai consulting firm, predicted that sales would rebound swiftly when the virus is brought under control. The epidemic may leave many Chinese with a wariness of mass transit.
The car “is a protection tool for themselves,” he said. “If they think this is really important, a lot of people can afford a car.”
Stocks fall again amid new worries about global demand.
Stocks fell for the second straight day on Friday, as a series of warnings about the ongoing — and possibly lasting — impact of the still-spreading coronavirus on the world economy prompted new worries about global demand.
Shares of energy, airline and technology companies led the broader market lower on Wall Street, as the S&P fell more than 1 percent in early trading, putting it on pace for its worst day of the month.
German luxury auto giant Daimler — which makes Mercedes-Benz — cautioned in its annual report that the virus could lead to a significant drop in Chinese economic growth. The report said the virus “may not only affect the development of unit sales, but may also lead to significant adverse effects on production, the procurement market and the supply chain.”
Separately, the International Air Transport Association warned of a deep downturn in earnings among global carriers related to the collapse of travel in Asia because of the virus.
Oil and gas prices fell, with the price of a barrel of benchmark American crude slipping more than 1.5 percent. The drop resulted from signs of deterioration in the relationship between Saudi Arabia, the key force behind the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and Russia. The two countries have coordinated production in recent years to keep oil prices propped.
Semiconductor shares — which are doubly exposed to Asia both as a center of production and sales — tumbled with major index of chip stocks down more than 2 percent.
While the markets have become more volatile since the outbreak, American stock markets have largely shrugged off the threat. Since Jan. 7, when Chinese officials identified the virus, the S&P 500 remains up more than 3 percent, even after this morning’s sell-off.
A South Korean church is tied to a surge in new infections.
South Korea reported a surge in confirmed infections and a second death from the coronavirus on Friday, with the latest outbreak linked to a secretive church whose members account for two-thirds of the new infections in the country.
Health officials are zeroing in on the Shincheonji Church of Jesus — whose members continued to sit packed together on the floor of the church even when sick — as they seek to contain the country’s alarming outbreak.
On Friday, the number of cases in the country soared above 200 — second only to mainland China, if the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship is excluded from Japan’s count.
More than 540 other church members have reported potential symptoms, health officials said, raising the possibility that the nation’s caseload could soon skyrocket further. In response, the government is shutting down thousands of kindergartens, nursing homes and community centers, even banning the outdoor political rallies that are a feature of life in downtown Seoul.
As of Friday, more than 340 members of Shincheonji, which mainstream South Korean churches consider a cult, still could not be reached, according to health officials, who were frantically hoping to screen them for signs of infection.
The church, founded by Lee Man-hee in 1984, says it has over 200,000 members around the world, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap. It closed all of its churches in South Korea this week and told followers to watch its services online.
The church dismissed criticism of its practices on Friday, calling it “slandering based on the prejudices among the established churches.”
A spike in cases in Beijing, which had largely been spared.
A spike in coronavirus cases at two Beijing hospitals has raised fears that the epidemic could be growing in a city that has so far largely been spared.
Compared with other cities, Beijing has had relatively few cases: 396 as of Thursday, and four deaths. But Fuxing Hospital now has at least 36 infections, a sizable increase since Feb. 3, when officials first announced that five medical workers there had tested positive.
Peking University Hospital also recorded three cases: a woman who had previously been hospitalized and her daughter and son-in-law who visited her after traveling to Xinjiang, the western region. The couple tested positive for the virus on Feb. 17, days after Beijing’s municipal government announced that all people arriving in the capital must quarantine themselves for 14 days or face legal consequences.
On Friday, officials said that people flying into the city from abroad who had not been in China in the previous 14 days would be exempt from the rules.
Beijing’s measures appear to reflect a strong effort by officials to minimize the spread of the epidemic in the capital as millions of workers return from a prolonged break following the Lunar New Year. Since the new measures were announced, the city authorities have stepped up efforts to control movement in the city, which has been uncharacteristically deserted for nearly a month.
The National People’s Congress, the country’s legislative body, also announced that it was preparing to postpone its annual meetings, scheduled for the first week of March.
Another young doctor in Wuhan…