A taxi driver died from COVID-19 in Taiwan, officials say marking first such death on island and fifth fatality outside mainland China from an epidemic that IMF says could damage global growth.

A woman wearing a protective face mask receives a temperature check from a security guard as she enters Qianmen Street, a popular tourist spot, in Beijing, Sunday, February. 16, 2020.
A woman wearing a protective face mask receives a temperature check from a security guard as she enters Qianmen Street, a popular tourist spot, in Beijing, Sunday, February. 16, 2020. (AP)

Taiwan reported its first death from the new coronavirus on Sunday, as the death toll from the outbreak rose to 1,665 inside mainland China.

A 61-year-old man from central Taiwan with underlying health problems but no recent overseas travel history died in hospital on Saturday after testing positive for the virus, officials confirmed.

"This latest case was an unlicensed taxi driver. His main clients were people who had been to China, Hong Kong, and Macao," health and welfare minister Chen Shih-chung told reporters.

It is the fifth recorded death outside mainland China –– previous victims were in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, and France.

Chen said authorities were examining the driver's client list and their travel history, in an attempt to trace the possible source of infection.

A 50-year-old male relative of the victim was later confirmed to have contracted the virus, Chen added, although he was not showing any symptoms.

Taiwan's confirmed cases now stands at 20.

'Political manipulation'

France reported the first coronavirus fatality outside Asia on Saturday, fuelling global concerns about the epidemic.

Nearly 1,000 Taiwanese are still awaiting repatriation in Hubei province –– the epicentre of the outbreak –– after Beijing and Taipei accused each other of "political manipulation", causing delays.

Taiwan did fly 247 people from Hubei's capital Wuhan on mainland-owned China Eastern Airlines flight on 3 February.

But how that evacuation was carried out caused disagreements.

The relationship between the two is complicated by the fact that Beijing views Taiwanese people as its own citizens, not as foreign nationals.

Panic buying of masks

The coronavirus, thought to have emerged at a wildlife market in the central Chinese province of Hubei, has killed hundreds in China with latest figures showing 68,500 cases of the illness.

Taiwan has banned entry to Chinese visitors and foreigners with a recent history of travel to China and suspended most flights to its giant neighbour. Many schools have also extended their Lunar New Year holiday to late February to curb the spread of the virus.

In a response to panic buying of masks on the island, the government scrambled to build several mask production lines and Premier Su Tseng-chang has vowed to more than double its daily mask production to 10 million by early March. 

Cases drop for third day

The number of new cases from China's coronavirus epidemic dropped for a third consecutive day on Sunday, as the World Health Organisation chief warned it was "impossible" to predict how the outbreak would develop.

About 142 more people died from the virus but the number of new cases of the COVID-19 strain continued to decline.

In hardest-hit Hubei, the number of new cases slowed for a third consecutive day and at 139, the number of deaths was level with Saturday's toll.

The number of new cases in other parts of the country has dropped for twelve straight days.

Mi Feng, National Health Commission spokesman, said on Sunday that the figures were a sign that China was controlling the outbreak.

"The effects of epidemic prevention and control in various parts of the country can already be seen," he told reporters.

But the WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that it was "impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take".

"We ask all governments, companies, and news organisations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria," he said, speaking at the Munich Security Conference.

The UN health body has asked China for more details on how diagnoses are being made.

An international team of WHO experts will arrive in Beijing this weekend for a joint mission with Chinese counterparts.

Avoid crowds over virus

Meanwhile, Japan's health minister on Sunday urged the public to avoid crowds and "non-essential gatherings", including notoriously packed commuter trains, to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading in the country.

Katsunobu Kato warned the nation was "entering a new phase" in the outbreak of the virus, which has infected nearly 60 people in Japan so far.

"We want to ask the public to avoid non-urgent, non-essential gatherings. We want elderly and those with pre-existing conditions to avoid crowded places," Kato said after a meeting of a panel of experts.

"I think it's important that we exercise Japan's collective strength. We wish to ask the Japanese people for their cooperation and it will take everyone being united to tackle this infectious disease," he told a press conference.

Meanwhile, Americans began leaving a quarantined cruise ship off Japan on Monday to board chartered flights home as the number of new coronavirus cases diagnosed on the vessel jumped to 355.

The evacuation came as Japanese authorities stepped up warnings over the deadly outbreak, urging citizens to avoid crowds and "non-essential gatherings."

The Diamond Princess was placed in 14-day quarantine in early February after a former passenger tested positive for the virus.

But US authorities announced on Saturday they would offer Americans onboard the option to leave the ship and fly home, where they will face another 14-day isolation period.

Virus could damage global growth

The coronavirus epidemic could damage global economic growth this year, the IMF head said on Sunday, but a sharp and rapid economic rebound could follow.

"There may be a cut that we are still hoping would be in the 0.1-0.2 percentage space," the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, told the Global Women's Forum in Dubai.

She said the full impact of the spreading disease would depend on how quickly it was contained.

"I advise everybody not to jump to premature conclusions. There is still a great deal of uncertainty.

We operate with scenarios, not yet with projections, ask me in 10 days," Georgieva said.

In its January update to the World Economic Outlook, the IMF lowered the global economic growth forecast in 2020 by a 0.1 percentage point to 3.3 percent, following a 2.9 percent growth the previous year, the lowest in a decade.

Parents of Pakistani students protests

Also on Sunday, around a hundred people called on Pakistan's government to "bring back our children" from the locked-down Chinese province of Hubei in a demonstration in Karachi.

Pakistan's government has so far ruled out evacuating the more than 1,000 Pakistani students in the province, home to the city of Wuhan, at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

State Health Minister Zafar Mirza said on Twitter on Friday that he and other ministers would hold a meeting for parents in Islamabad on Wednesday and that his government was working with Chinese authorities to ensure students were taken care of.

But many students and their families have expressed growing frustration as the death toll in China mounts, pointing to other countries, including neighbouring India and Bangladesh, evacuating their citizens.

"For God's sake, we request from the government representatives please bring back our children, please listen to a mother's grievance," one protester, who declined to give her name, told media while bursting into tears.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies