Coronavirus latest: More than 1,700 doctors infected in China as total cases breach 60,000

Coronavirus latest: More than 1,700 doctors infected in China as total cases breach 60,000

Beijing tells returnees to self-quarantine for 14 days

As China struggles to get back to work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, officials in the nation’s capital have ordered all returnees to self-isolate at home for 14 days.

Those who do not do so will be punished, state media reports said.

The move is potentially a huge blow to Beijing’s huge army of migrant workers, who hail from less developed parts of the country but earn their money in the capital. Many do not have medical insurance and are paid by the hour.

China has 288m migrant workers, and as the FT’s Kathrin Hille reports here, many have already been prevented from getting back to work by travel restrictions imposed across the country.

Investor complacency sets in while coronavirus spreads

Stock markets are hovering close to record highs even as the death count from the coronavirus outbreak in China continues to rise. To some traders, this is proof that investors believe major central banks will pump more stimulus into the financial system, FT’s Laurence Fletcher and Jennifer Ablan report.

Investors’ optimism on asset prices has come as 49 central banks cut rates a total of 71 times last year, according to JPMorgan data.

“Markets are ‘stoned’, after [a] long heavy dosage of monetary injections,” said Francesco Filia, head of London-based hedge fund Fasanara Capital. “[The] reality is that they don’t care about valuations a tiny bit, it’s only a big momentum market. Only the global liquidity tide matters.”

Read the full story here.

WHO asking suppliers to accelerate distribution of protective gear

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said officials have asked medical supply companies to prioritise the production and distribution of protective equipment for doctors and other healthcare workers.

“We have been in regular contact with suppliers,” he said during a press briefing. “We are also in touch with member states on this important issue.”

Dr Tedros was responding to data on Friday showing that more than 1,700 healthcare workers in China have been infected with coronavirus, according to Beijing.

“This is a critical piece of information, because health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together. We need to know more about this figure, including the time period and circumstances in which the health workers became sick,” he said.

https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1228338877024391168

Global stocks end week higher after spate of records

Global stocks limped to the end of the week, slightly becalmed following a flurry of records in the past five days, as investors weighed the number of coronavirus cases. In the UK pharmaceutical and healthcare stocks were hit, while stocks in the US opened flat.

The S&P 500 rose 0.05 per cent in New York while the tech heavy Nasdaq rose 0.1 per cent.

The composite Stoxx 600 of Europe’s biggest companies, flat on the day, nonetheless pulled towards a second consecutive weekly rise that will bring its February tally a shade below 5 per cent. That would help it towards its best monthly rise since January last year. The index, which has begun the decade with a bang as it added 3.6 per cent in 2020, touched a record intraday high during Friday trading before any gains fizzled out.

In London, the FTSE 100 was 0.3 per cent lower, “dragged down by weakness in pharmaceutical and healthcare stocks following AstraZeneca’s coronavirus-related warning”, said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell. “Other sectors at risk of seeing earnings disappoint because of coronavirus were also down, namely miners and luxury goods.”

He added: “Next week could see economic news have a heavy influence on the markets with numerous data points being released.” They include retail sales, unemployment and inflation levels in the UK, housing market activity in the US and machinery orders in Japan.

In Asia, stocks were steady as Chinese stocks recorded their first weekly gain in four. The CSI 300 closed 0.7 per cent higher while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.3 per cent.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, nearly 2 per cent higher at $57.45 a barrel was still about a fifth off its high for the year, which was struck early last month. West Texas Intermediate crude, the US crude benchmark, was up 1.6 per cent.

Coronavirus was not genetically engineered in a Wuhan lab, says expert

Clive Cookson, Science Editor, reports:

A scientist at the forefront of an international effort to track the deadly coronavirus outbreak has shot down claims about the disease’s origins, including that it escaped from a Wuhan laboratory after being genetically engineered.

Trevor Bedford, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, rubbished stories circulating on social media that Covid-19 was created at Wuhan Institute of Virology or elsewhere in China, rumours that prompted the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic” of false news on the outbreak.

Speaking at at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle, Mr Bedford said:

There is no evidence whatsoever of genetic engineering that we can find … The evidence we have is that the mutations [in the virus] are completely consistent with natural evolution.

One source of rumours was a paper posted by scientists in India claiming that short insertions in the viral genome had an “uncanny similarity” to HIV. Although the paper was quickly withdrawn, its allegations live on in social media.

The research was “wrong on many levels,” said Dr Bedford, whose lab studies the evolution of viruses. The genes it shares with HIV are extremely short sequences naturally shared by other organisms and “repeated again and again throughout the tree of life.”

Read Clive’s full report here

Good morning New York, Americas: So while you were asleep ….

As you are opening your eyes in the Americas, this roundup on the coronavirus outbreak will help you catch up on the latest:

Latest toll: Total deaths from the Covid-19 virus come to 1,384, all in China other than one in Japan and one in the Philippines. Worldwide, 64,447 cases have been confirmed, with Singapore being the most affected after mainland China. More than 1,700 doctors are among those infected. Still, 7,033 have recovered.

Markets: Stocks have inched up: Europe’s composite Stoxx 600 has added 0.2 per cent as it heads for a weekly rise of 1.7 per cent while China’s CSI 300 closed 0.7 per cent higher. US futures point to a 0.2 per cent rise when Wall Street opens. The international oil marker Brent crude is 1.4 per cent higher. The yield on the US Treasury 10-year note is down 3 basis points.

Corporate fallout: AstraZeneca made clear the epidemic has injected uncertainty into its growth forecasts. Asian companies have raised hard-currency debt at a record rate, with businesses excluding Japan raising $37.5bn, compared with the previous high water mark of $27.3bn.

Events postponed or cancelled include: Mobile World Congress, Europe’s biggest smartphone conference scheduled to start in Barcelona next week; Chinese Grand Prix; the Black Hat information security conference’s Asia summit; London Metal Exchange’s annual Asian gathering in Hong Kong.

Other news: Malaysia is to launch a stimulus package this month to mitigate the impact of the virus.

Nine new confirmed cases of Covid-19 push Singapore’s total to 67

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore has reported nine new confirmed cases of coronavirus, taking the country’s total to 67 and making it the most affected place outside mainland China.

Six patients are linked to the cluster involving the Grace Assembly of God church, one is a 61 year old female family member of the previously-diagnosed DBS banker and the remainder have no links to previous cases. The latter involve two men aged 50 and 61.

None of the new patients have recent travel history to China. They are all Singaporean citizens. The cases linked to the church include four women aged 54, 56, 44 and 51 as well as two men aged 28 and 57.

Singapore has stepped up preventive measures including reactivating “public health preparedness clinics”. These involve 900 general practitioner clinics previously used during Singapore’s haze season and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. The clinics, which will be activated gradually starting on February 18, are aimed at identifying the virus at an early stage while symptoms are mild.

“We have said that we are seeing the start of community transmission of the virus in Singapore, and that’s why today, we’ve announced this additional measure… so that we can detect early and reduce the risk of community spread,” said Lawrence Wong, minister for national development who co-chairs Singapore’s coronavirus taskforce.

The government has also advised healthcare staff to provide medical certificates lasting five days to patients with respiratory symptoms to minimise contagion.

Mr Wong said Singapore “will also reassess and update our strategies to deal with this evolving situation,” echoing comments made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the weekend.

Two more cases have fully recovered and have been discharged from hospital, taking the total to 17.

Metals fall as concerns rise over virus impact

Henry Sanderson reports:

Prices of base metals from aluminium to zinc fell on Friday as concerns deepened about the impact of the coronavirus on demand in China.

The move ended a brief rally this week which saw metal prices recover from recent lows.

Prices for aluminium dropped back by 1 per cent to trade at $1,733.5 a tonne on Friday while zinc fell by 1 per cent to $2,149 a tonne.

Aluminium prices hit a two-year low of $1,687 a tonne in early February.

Xinlin Chen, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said:

The market remains wary of weaker economic activity and demand growth, logistical backlogs and the impact on output across the value chain.

Data show that inventories of zinc on the Shanghai Futures Exchange have risen by 20 per cent this week as logistics and transportation have been curtailed across the country.

Analysts at BMO Capital Markets said:

Chinese zinc smelters are likely to continue struggling with the build-up of metal inventory and sulphuric acid stocks caused by logistical disruptions stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

Asian companies gorge on debt as virus pushes down yields

George Hammond and Hudson Lockett report from Hong Kong:

Companies across Asia are raising hard-currency debt at a record rate as the coronavirus outbreak pushes down bond yields in the region.

Since the start of the year, businesses across Asia excluding Japan have raised $37.5bn in debt denominated in dollars, euros and yen, according to Dealogic data, as they seek to lock in cheap financing rates.

The previous high water mark was the $27.3bn raised during the same period in 2017.

Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas giant, on Friday priced the country’s first ever 40-year bond. The $800m US dollar issuance has a 4.15 per cent yield. The company also issued a $650m, 10.5-year bond with a 3.1 per cent coupon.

The oil company is one of a slew of Asian institutions capitalising on low yields to raise hard-currency debt. Indian telecommunications company Bharti Airtel raised $250m on Thursday. A week earlier Adani Electricity, an Indian utility, issued $1bn in dollar bonds.

Bond yields have come down as investors seek safer assets due to concerns over the potential impact of the coronavirus on global economic growth. The yield on US 10-year treasuries, seen as a safe bet by investors, is currently about 1.6 per cent.

Click here to read the George and Hudon’s full piece

Fixed-income fund flows rise as investors fear coronavirus impact

Colby Smith and Richard Henderson in New York report:

Global investors poured a record amount of cash into fixed-income funds for the week ending Wednesday, as the coronavirus outbreak intensified fears of a global growth slowdown.

Fixed-income mutual funds and exchange traded funds took in $23.6bn, the biggest weekly intake since 2001, according to EPFR Global. Inflows into US bond funds accounted for $15.4bn of the total. This included $10.3bn into US investment grade bonds.

Goldman Sachs analysts said the outbreak of the virus, which has now claimed more than 1,100 lives and infected at least 44,000 people, could shave an annualised 2 per cent from global gross domestic product growth in the first quarter, driven by “weaker growth in China, lower Chinese tourist spending, and lower Chinese goods imports”.

London Metal Exchange cancels key Hong Kong event

Henry Sanderson reports:

The London Metal Exchange has cancelled its annual Asian gathering in Hong Kong due to the coronavirus.

The world’s leading metals exchange said the LME Asia Dinner and seminar on May 6 will no longer take place.

In a statement, the LME said:

This decision has been taken for the safety of staff, customers and friends in the metals industry across the region.

The Asia Dinner is a key event for the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing-owned LME, which has been trying to attract more mainland Chinese traders to the exchange.

Trouble brews for cement producers due to China’s shutdown

China’s construction industry is under “high pressure” from the coronavirus outbreak, which could begin to affect Chinese cement producers, the head of the cement industry body said, reports Harry Dempsey.

The sector is suffering because building sites, typically located in urban, polluted areas where the risk of the disease spreading is higher, are still shut down, while their workforce and contractors, who come from all over China, have had trouble returning to work, the World Cement Association’s chief executive said.

“The [construction] sector is under higher pressure of the coronavirus control and shall be more prudent about the restart of their works,” Ian Riley said.

Cement plants typically close during Chinese new year and tend to generate lower demand in the first quarter of the year. Their recovery, however, will be slower this year, as they grapple with logistical issues to transport the cement, Mr Riley said.

The WCA expects the Chinese government to announce stimulus measures to boost spending on infrastructure once the spread of the disease comes under control, which could concentrate yearly demand in the second half, potentially leading to supply shortages and higher cement prices.

Japanese brewer Kirin warns of ‘considerable’ damage from virus

Kana Inagaki reports:

The chief executive of Kirin has warned that its business will be hit as the coronavirus outbreak causes “immeasurable impact” on beer consumption at restaurants, inns, and izakaya pubs that have benefited from a surge in tourists from China.

“There will be considerable economic damage,” Kirin’s CEO Yoshinori Isozaki said at an earnings presentation. “We don’t know when this outbreak will be contained. There is no doubt that our business will be impacted.”

Japan’s second-biggest brewer does not have a high exposure to the Chinese market, but it is one of many businesses that have benefited as the number of tourists visiting the country hit an all-time high of 31.9m last year.

Arrivals from China rose 14.5 per cent from a year earlier, accounting for 30 per cent of the foreign tourists in 2019, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Malaysia plans fiscal stimulus to deal with economic toll

Stefania Palma reports:

Malaysia on February 27 will launch a stimulus package “to mitigate the adverse external economic impacts” of the coronavirus outbreak, Lim Guan Eng, the country’s finance minister, said in a statement.

This is neither a new budget nor a measure included in the 2020 budget, he added without disclosing the programme’s size. The package is aimed at companies in “affected sectors” of the economy.

“Cashflow is the principal concern and the affected companies must ensure that they remain viable, operational and capable of reaping the benefits when the economic rebound takes place,” Mr Lim said.

He also encouraged companies to seek alternative revenue sources such as in domestic tourism and to diversify their sourcing to new markets.

A number of ministries are consulting players in the logistics, finance and tourism sectors as well as SMEs and government linked funds and companies, the statement said.

Some HSBC Hong Kong staff sent home

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong:

A number of HSBC staff in Hong Kong have been told to stay home for two weeks after the bank discovered one of its employees had contact with a coronavirus patient and is now “under government quarantine for medical surveillance”.

The bank said it was told about the situation on Thursday night and said the employee had visited one of the bank’s Hong Kong offices as recently as Tuesday.

“The areas where the employee sits have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected immediately, with particular attention given to public spaces, such as pantry. The whole building continues to be regularly cleaned as part of our efforts around daily hygiene,” a HSBC spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman added that HSBC was contacting those who had been in contact with the employee and asked them to stay home for two weeks, and it was already allowing people to work from home in the city.

Stocks rise as investors focus on number of cases

Katharine Gemmell writes:

European stocks inched higher in early trading as investors kept a close watch on the number of confirmed cases in China.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index was 0.1 per cent higher in early trading, following a largely positive session in Asia.

Investor sentiment was rattled yesterday fell after a spike in reported cases, due to a change in the methodology of counting cases in the province at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei. Since then there has been no shift in severity of the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

Jim Reid, macro strategist at Deutsche Bank, said investors are still focused on the number of confirmed cases being reported in China. In Hubei, the number of cases “has shown signs of stabilising today”, he said.

Chinese stocks recorded their first weekly gain in four weeks, with the CSI 300 index of mainland stocks closing 0.7 per cent higher today. Hong Kong Hang Seng closed up 0.3 per cent.

The Stoxx 600 index, which tracks Europe’s biggest companies, has risen 5 per cent this month, putting it on track for the best increase since January last year.

“Our base case is that the virus can be largely controlled by end-March, and that the negative impact on the economy will be mostly confined to the first-quarter,” said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management.

China says ‘asymptomatic carriers’ are not counted in public data

China has said that people who test positive for the new coronavirus strain but who do not have symptoms are not counted in public data.

Zeng Yixin, deputy-head of China’s National Health Commission, said so-called “asymptomatic carriers” must be quarantined for 14 days and cases reported through the national reporting network, but there is “no need” to make them public.

“According to the relevant regulations concerning disclosures about the epidemic, we only make public confirmed and suspected cases of the novel coronavirus,” he said.

He made the remarks at a press conference attended by the FT’s Yuan Yang.

Mr Zeng also explained why the reporting methodology was changed in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak, to include cases that have been clinically diagnosed in addition to laboratory confirmed ones.

He said:

The aim [of changing the reporting categories] is to let patients be diagnosed early and treated early, to standardise treatment, and to raise the effectiveness of treatment….At present, we have not set this category of clinically diagnosed cases for other provinces.

The change in reporting standards in Hubei caused a large increase in the number of cases reported in the data release on Thursday.

Epidemic injects uncertainty into AstraZeneca’s outlook

AstraZeneca has warned of the impact on its business of the coronavirus outbreak, making clear that the unfolding epidemic has injected uncertainty into its growth forecasts, writes Sarah Neville, global pharmaceuticals editor, in London.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker said that, depending on the impact of the virus, known as Covid-19, total revenue was expected to increase “by a high single-digit to a low double-digit percentage”.

Core earnings per share were expected to rise by a mid-to-high-teens percentage.

Shares in the group fell 4.5 per cent in early London trading.

“The guidance given in today’s statement assumes an unfavourable impact in China on total revenue and core [earnings per share] lasting up to a few months,” the company said on Friday.

China remains the company’s fastest growing region, leaving it more exposed than many pharma companies to the logistical and other problems caused by the virus. Sales there rose 35 per cent in constant currencies over the full year, and by 28 per cent in the fourth quarter, to about $1.2bn.

Mr Soriot said the company had not yet seen “any disruption in our operations” in China and was making sure that patients did not miss out on medicines.

After an extended closure over the new year break, its two sites in the country were operating at 85 per cent and 100 per cent of capacity and both would be at full strength soon, he told journalists at a news conference.

The company expects some impact on its clinical trials, although this so far has been minimal, he said.

I would say so far we haven’t seen a negative impact on our programme.

Map: Tracking the spread of the Covid-19

Here is the latest tracking map from the FT’s data visualisation team:

Almost 1.5m in Hong Kong join online queue for face masks

Hong Kong health and beauty retailer Watsons said 1.49m people joined a queue on its website on Friday to register to buy face masks in the latest sign of the intense demand for the products in the city.

The retailer, which is controlled by billionaire Li Ka-shing under CK Hutchison Holdings, opened registration for 30,000 people to each buy a box masks that are set to be delivered to Hong Kong.

Members of the public have joined queues of hundreds of people outside shops on the promise of new stock in a bid to protect themselves from coronavirus. The majority of people wear surgical masks in public in Hong Kong, but a shortage both in shops and for government departments has stoked distrust in the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, following months of protests.

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More than 1,700 doctors infected with virus in China

China has said 1,716 doctors have come down with coronavirus, highlighting the significant toll taken by medical professionals on the front-line of the effort to contain the outbreak and treat sick patients.

The announcement was made at a National Health Commission press conference, the FT’s Yuan Yang reports. Most of the cases were in Hubei, the province that is by far the hardest-hit by the new strain of coronavirus.

Zeng Yixin, deputy-head of the NHC, was also queried on why Hubei changed its reporting methodology earlier this week to include not just lab-confirmed cases but those who are clinically diagnosed based on certain factors.

“Our aim is to let doctors do earlier treatment and earlier diagnosis on these cases. Other provinces do not have this approach [to reporting clinically-diagnosed cases],” he said.

Finnair to cancel mainland China flights until end of March

Finnair said it will cancel its flights to Beijing Capital Airport and Shanghai until March 28 and cut one of its two daily flights to Hong Kong from the end of the month as coronavirus has led to a decline in demand for air travel between China and Europe.

The Finnish airline had previously cancelled flights to mainland China between 6 February and 29 February. The airline said it had already cancelled flights to Beijing Daxing Airport, Nanjing and two daily flights to Guangzhou on low demand for group travel up until March 29.

Finnair has said the financial impact of the cancellations is “relatively limited”, even if they continued to the end of the first quarter.

Europe: What you missed while you slept

If you’re just waking up in Europe, here’s the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak:

China reported the death toll from coronavirus rose to 1,380 to the end of Thursday with the number of national cases hitting 63,851. The number of deaths was adjusted to compensate for overcounting from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak.

There is no evidence that the Covid-19 coronavirus was engineered, according to a leading scientist, dismissing rumours that the virus had escaped from a lab. Read more here.

A handful of new coronavirus cases in Japan have raised fears about the domestic spread of the virus as they have no obvious link to China.

The Black Hat information security conference has postponed its Asia summit over coronavirus concerns, making it the latest large event to postpone or cancel because of the virus.

Passengers on a cruise ship denied entry to Thailand have been allowed to disembark in Cambodia.

Spread love, not germs

The University of Hong Kong’s medical school is reminding people to wear masks with a cheeky Valentine’s Day message:

Markets ‘acting rationally’ amid coronavirus – Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs said the recent recovery in markets following the initial jitters over coronavirus “looks rational, even though it appears early” as investors look at patterns from past outbreaks.

“Investors are surprised how quickly markets have recovered, especially given newsflow regarding the impact of the virus on economic activity. Despite this, we believe markets are acting rationally,” Goldman Sachs said in a note.

The Wall Street Bank pointed to “widespread awareness in previous outbreak episodes, markets tended to trough when the momentum of new infections peaked” referencing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003. The note highlighted that the rate of new confirmed cases of coronavirus had moderated since February 5.

China reported the total number of coronavirus cases passed 60,000 to the end of Thursday after new counting methods included cases that have been clinically diagnosed but had not undergone laboratory testing. There have been a total of 1,380 deaths from the virus.

Investors are incentivised to move early as five previous virus outbreaks saw a strong post-trough performance, the bank said. For Asia, that represented an 18 per cent and 23 per cent rebound from the trough at 3 months and 6 months post-outbreak.

However, Goldman cautioned that markets might be “overly optimistic” about the potential upside as valuations are high compared to previous outbreaks and the “macro environment is somewhat less supportive of a strong market rally” thanks to the US-China trade war and lower growth in China compared to 2003.

The CSI 300 of Shanghai and Shenzhen stocks was up 0.8 per cent on Friday, down 5.1 per cent from mid-January after falling sharply when trading resumed after the lunar new year break. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was up 0.6 per cent trimming losses from a January peak to be 4 per cent low from an almost 10 per cent fall between January 17 and January 31.

Goldman pointed to consumer discretionary stocks such as restaurant chain Xiabuxiabu Catering or Trip.com and airlines including Air China and China Southern Airlines as “attractive recovery candidates”. Developers, banks and machinery manufacturers stand to benefit most from virus-related government stimulus.

EmoticonChina records 121 new coronavirus deaths

Chinese health authorities reported 121 new deaths from coronavirus to the end of Thursday, taking the overall number of deaths linked to the virus to 1,380. The total number of cases rose to 63,851 across the country.

The number of deaths were revised owing to double counting of 108 fatalities in Hubei, the centre of the outbreak, the National Health Commission said. The total number of cases reflects the removal of 1,043 cases from Hubei.

Information security conference Black Hat postpones Asia summit

Black Hat, one of the best-known cyber security conferences, has postponed its Asia summit, which had been due to take place late next month in Singapore.

The move is the latest sign of how conference organisers have been forced to push back events in a bid to stymie the spread of the new coronavirus. Mobile World Congress, Europe’s biggest telecoms conference, on Thursday cancelled its event that was due to be held at the end of February in Barcelona.

It was revealed on Thursday that an attendee at a bus conference in central London had come down with coronavirus, prompting a race by authorities to trace those with whom they may have come into contact.

Black Hat said on Friday it would cancel the conference, which was due to take place on March 31 to April 3, “after careful consideration of the health and safety of our attendees and partners.”

It said it plans to host the Asia conference this fall.

EmoticonJapan coronavirus cases spark calls to prevent spread in the country

Robin Harding reports from Tokyo:

A cluster of new coronavirus cases in Japan, including the country’s first fatality, have raised fears about the domestic spread of the disease because they have no obvious link to its origin in China.

Japan announced four new cases on Thursday night: a woman in her 80s who fell ill on January 22nd but was not diagnosed with the virus until after her death on February 13th; a Tokyo taxi driver in his 70s who fell ill on January 29th but was not diagnosed until February 13th; and two men in Wakayama and Chiba prefectures with similarly long gaps between the start of a fever and confirmation of coronavirus infection.

In all four cases, the patient had no history of travel to China, and the source of the infection is unclear. That has prompted some experts to call for a shift in focus towards preventing the spread of coronavirus within Japan rather than trying to stop it at the border.

Tokyo stocks fall after Japan reports first coronavirus death

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong:

Stocks in Tokyo fell on Friday as equities in the rest of the region rose, after Japan confirmed its first death from the coronavirus.

The benchmark Topix index fell 0.7 per cent with falls across almost all sectors. On Thursday evening, Japan’s health ministry said a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, near Tokyo, had died after contracting the virus.

Other markets in the region were up on Friday, however, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rising 0.4 per cent and Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 climbing 0.3 per cent.
The broader gains for Asia-Pacific equities came after US stocks snapped three days of gains on Thursday after China reported a jump in cases of coronavirus.

‘No evidence whatsoever’ virus was engineered, leading scientist says

The FT’s Clive Cookson reports from Seattle:

A scientist at the forefront of an international effort to track the coronavirus epidemic through genetic analysis has shot down misleading claims circulating widely on social media about the origins of the virus, which have prompted the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic” of false news about Covid-19 disease.

Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle categorically denied persistent stories that epidemic was started by genetically engineered virus escaping from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or elsewhere.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever of genetic engineering that we can find,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. “The evidence we have is that the mutations [in the virus] are completely consistent with natural evolution.”

One source of rumours was a paper posted by scientists in India claiming that short insertions in the viral genome had an “uncanny similarity” to HIV. Although the paper was quickly withdrawn, its allegations live on in social media.

The research was “wrong on many levels,” said Dr Bedford, whose lab studies the evolution of viruses. The genes that coronavirus shares with HIV are extremely short sequences naturally shared by other organisms and “repeated again and again throughout the tree of life.”

He also disputed claims that Covid-19 might have infected humans from snakes or fish. Like many other coronaviruses, its natural reservoir is in bats. The most likely scenario, based on genetic analysis, is that the virus was transmitted by a bat to another mammal between 20 and 70 years ago. This intermediary animal – not yet identified – then passed it on to its first human host in Wuhan in late November or early December 2019.

Dr Bedford is a leader of the worldwide Nextstrain collaboration that began to analyse Covid-19 genomes as soon as the first five were released on January 10 and 11 by Fudan University and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control. By now scientists around the world have published the genetic sequence of virus taken from about 100 Covid patients.

Alibaba warns of severe impact as coronavirus brings China to halt

The FT’s Ryan McMorrow reported overnight:

Alibaba, whose platforms sell two-thirds of everything bought online in China, has long been an indicator of the health of the country’s economy. On Thursday, the diagnosis was bleak.

The spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus has brought China to a standstill and will hurt Alibaba’s businesses “across the board”, warned Daniel Zhang, the chief executive, even as he unveiled a 56 per cent year-on-year rise in net income to Rmb52bn ($7.5bn) for the final quarter of last year.

The company now expects its Tmall and Taobao retail business, food delivery and other consumer units, together responsible for about 57 per cent of revenues in the fourth quarter, to shrink in the first three months of 2020. The unit has grown at more than 30 per cent annually for years.

For some big brands on Alibaba’s platforms, such as Uniqlo, Estée Lauder and Big Eve, average daily sales since the outbreak started have plunged between 40 and 80 per cent compared with January to February 2019, according to data Alibaba provides to merchants.

“The impact is more significant than everyone expected. If Alibaba is like this then so are many others. We need to revise our assumptions on the impact to the entire economy,” said David Dai of Bernstein.

Read the full story.

Passengers from cruise ship denied entry to Thailand disembark in Cambodia

Passengers on a cruise ship that was refused entry to Thailand this week on fears over coronavirus have been allowed to disembark in Cambodia on Friday morning.

More than 2,000 guests on the Westerdam operated by Holland America Group were allowed to leave the ship after tests submitted to a laboratory in Phnom Penh came back negative for coronavirus, the cruise company said.

The cruise left Hong Kong on February 1 for a 14-day trip but was turned away from Japan and the Philippines as another ship, the Diamond Princess was held in quarantine in Japan. The Diamond Princess has reported more than 200 coronavirus infections.

The US embassy in Cambodia tweeted pictures of passengers leaving the ship and thanked the Cambodian government for its help.

Person with confirmed coronavirus was at Westminster conference

Bethan Staton and Sarah Neville write:

A person attending a central London conference along with more than 200 others last week has subsequently been diagnosed with coronavirus, it has emerged, as authorities rush to trace those with whom they may have come into contact.

The unknown individual attended the UK Bus Summit at the QEII Centre, one of London’s largest conference halls, in Westminster on February 6.

Read more on this story here.

Hubei province reports 116 new coronavirus deaths

China’s Hubei province, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak reported 116 new deaths from the virus to the end of Thursday, according to a statement from the province’s health commission published on Friday. The number follows a sharp increase for the previous day’s tally as authorities included cases with only a clinical diagnosis and not a positive laboratory test for the first time.

There were 4,823 new cases, which included 3,095 clinical diagnoses, to take the total for Hubei to 51,986.

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