The daily death toll in the Chinese province at the center of the coronavirus outbreak halved on Friday, officials said, while passengers on a cruise ship blocked from five countries due to virus fears finally disembarked in Cambodia.
News of the first death from the virus in Japan rattled Asian markets, already on edge after hopes that the epidemic was stabilizing appeared to be dashed by a sharp rise in the number of cases reported by China on Thursday.
In its latest update, Hubei province's health commission on Friday said it had recorded 116 deaths and 4,823 new cases of the flu-like virus that emerged in the provincial capital, Wuhan, in December.
The number of new deaths and infections was down sharply on the previous day, when a change in the methods of diagnosing patients led to a record spike in cases.
The new figures give no indication the outbreak is nearing a peak, said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.
"Based on the current trend in confirmed cases, this appears to be a clear indication that while the Chinese authorities are doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the fairly drastic measures they have implemented to date would appear to have been too little, too late," he said.
The epidemic has given China's ruling Communist Party one of its sternest challenges in years, constrained the world's second-largest economy and triggered a purge of provincial bureaucrats.
Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death on Thursday - a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo. The death was the third outside mainland China, after two others in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Japan is one of the worst affected of more than two dozen countries and territories outside mainland China that have seen hundreds of infections from the flu-like sickness.
Figures due out later on Friday are expected to show Japan's economy - the world's third-largest - shrank an annualized 3.7% in the October-December quarter, due partly to the impact of the virus outbreak, according to analysts.
"Investors will surely avoid Asia for the time being and will shift funds to the US, geographically the most separated from the region," said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.
A cruise liner quarantined off a Japanese port has more than 200 people confirmed with the disease. Authorities have said they will allow some elderly people to disembark on Friday.
Passengers on another cruise ship that spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over coronavirus fears started disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.
The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked in the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville on Thursday. It had anchored offshore early in the morning to allow Cambodian officials to board and collect samples from passengers with any signs of ill health or flu-like symptoms.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the passengers with handshakes and bouquets of roses as they stepped off the ship and boarded a waiting bus.
"My wife and I gave him some chocolates as a show of our appreciation," Lou Poandel, a tourist from New Jersey, told Reuters after he disembarked and met the Cambodian leader.
Global health authorities are still scrambling to find "patient zero" - a person who carried the disease into a company meeting in Singapore from which it spread to five other countries.
TRUMP PRAISES CHINESE RESPONSE
The rise in China's reported cases on Thursday reflected a decision by authorities there to reclassify a backlog of suspected cases by using patients' chest images, and is not necessarily the "tip of an iceberg" of a wider epidemic, a top World Health Organization official said on Thursday.
Mike Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies program, said more than 14,000 new cases reported in Hubei province on Thursday came after a change to include results from quicker computerized tomography (CT) scans that reveal lung infections, rather than relying just on laboratory tests to confirm cases.
"We've seen this spike in the number of cases reported in China, but this does not represent a significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak," Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.
US President Donald Trump praised China over its response and said Washington was working closely with Beijing. "I think they've handled it professionally, and I think they're extremely capable," Trump said in a podcast broadcast on iHeart Radio.
But Trump's top White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was more critical. "We're a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese, these numbers are jumping around ... there was some surprise," he told reporters.
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BACKLASH AGAINST BUREAUCRATS
The outbreak, believed to have emerged from a Wuhan market where wildlife was traded illegally, has triggered a backlash against local political leaders.
Provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang was fired as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang removed as party chief in Wuhan, state media said. They were the two highest-profile officials to be axed since the outbreak.
Economists have assessing the impact of the outbreak on the world's second-largest economy and scaling back their expectations for growth this year.
China's economy will grow at its slowest rate since the global financial crisis in the current quarter, according to a Reuters poll of economists who said the downturn will be short-lived if the outbreak is contained.