China reported 143 virus deaths and a dip in new cases on Saturday while the head of the World Health Organization praised the country's efforts to contain the new disease, saying they have "bought the world time" and that other nations must make the most of it.

France, meanwhile, reported Europe's first death from the new virus, a Chinese tourist from Hubei province, where the disease emerged in December. The United States was preparing to fly home American passengers quarantined aboard a cruise ship in Japan.

China reported 2641 new cases in the 24 hours through midnight Friday, raising its total to 66,492. Mainland China's death toll rose to 1523.

A delivery man carries goods near a health checkpoint into a office building in Beijing, China. The Lunar New Year was extended to keep factories and officers closed. Photo / AP
A delivery man carries goods near a health checkpoint into a office building in Beijing, China. The Lunar New Year was extended to keep factories and officers closed. Photo / AP

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The number of new cases was down from the 5090 in the previous 24-hour period after authorities changed the basis for counting patients. Numbers of new cases have fluctuated, fueling both optimism the disease might be under control and warnings that such hopes are premature.

The UN health agency's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged governments to step up their efforts to prepare for the virus, saying "it's impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take".

Tedros told a gathering of international foreign and security policy leaders in Germany on Saturday that WHO is encouraged there has not yet been widespread transmission outside China and that "the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time".

"We're encouraged that an international team of experts is now on the ground working closely with Chinese counterparts to understand the outbreak," Tedros told the Munich Security Conference.

But he said the agency is "concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China," and by reports about the number of health workers who have been infected or died.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, gives a statement to the media about the response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Photo / AP
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, gives a statement to the media about the response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Photo / AP

"We're concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community," Tedros said.

"We must use the window of opportunity we have to intensify our preparedness," he added. "China has bought the world time. We don't know how much time."

China's government suspended most access to Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, on January 23. Restrictions have expanded to cities with a total of 60 million people in the broadest anti-disease measures ever imposed. Restaurants, shops and other businesses nationwide were ordered to close.

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The Lunar New Year holiday was extended to keep factories and offices closed, but now officials have been ordered to revive business activity as economic losses mount.

Authorities have announced measures to try to curb new infections as millions of workers crowd into planes, trains and buses to return to densely populated cities.

Under the new measures, people returning to Beijing will have to isolate themselves at home for 14 days, according to a notice published Friday. It said people who fail to comply will face legal consequences but gave no details.

COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, has spread to more than two dozen countries.

The 80-year-old Chinese tourist who died in France was hospitalised Jan. 25 with a lung infection, according to Health Minister Agnes Buzyn. His daughter also fell ill but authorities say she is expected to recover.

In Japan, the US Embassy said a chartered aircraft will arrive late Sunday to fly home Americans aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama, near Tokyo. The passengers have been quarantined aboard the ship since February 5, but they will face another two-week quarantine after arriving in the United States.

Two large textile companies have been mobilised to produce face masks to help the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic in eastern China's Shandong Province. Photo / AP
Two large textile companies have been mobilised to produce face masks to help the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic in eastern China's Shandong Province. Photo / AP

Those who return to the US will fly to Travis Air Force Base in California and some will fly onward to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, said an embassy statement. It said no one with symptoms would be allowed aboard the flight.

Hong Kong's government said its residents aboard the cruise ship also will be flown home as soon as possible, and they too would face a second quarantine.

So far, 285 people from the cruise ship have tested positive for the virus. Japan's Health Ministry allowed 11 passengers to disembark Friday. It said passengers above 80 years of age, those with underlying medical conditions and those who stayed in windowless cabins during the 14-day quarantine could move to a facility on shore.

On Thursday, the number of new cases reported by authorities in Hubei spiked to 15,152, mainly because China has changed the way it is counting. That included 13,332 that were diagnosed with doctors' analyses and lung imaging instead of the previous standard of laboratory testing. Health authorities said the new method would facilitate earlier treatment.

Nine more temporary hospitals have opened in gymnasiums and other public buildings, with 6960 beds in Hubei, the National Health Commission announced. It said 5606 patients with mild symptoms were being treated.

The ruling Communist Party is trying to restore public confidence following complaints leaders in Wuhan suppressed information about the disease. The party faced similar criticism after the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

The party should "strengthen areas of weakness and close up loopholes" after the epidemic exposed "shortcomings and deficiencies," President Xi Jinping said at a meeting of party leaders Friday, according to state media.

Extended closures of factories and businesses prevented a flood of travel after the Lunar New Year holiday, normally the Chinese industry's busiest season, officials said at a news conference.

Total volume of daily travellers is down 80 per cent from last year, according to a deputy transportation minister, Liu Xiaoming.

Business losses are so severe that forecasters have cut their outlooks for China's economic growth.

The state-owned banking industry has provided more than 537 billion yuan ($119b) in credit to industries such as retail, catering and tourism that have been hurt most, according to Liang Tao, vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission.

This weekend, a team of WHO experts were due to begin a mission in China.
A WHO official, speaking at the conference in Munich, defended China's handling of the outbreak.

"Some of the rhetoric for me has not been helpful, not been helpful at all. China has a strong public health and health system," said Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO's chief of emergencies. "I think we as the global community need to change our narrative if we're going to work successfully with China and other countries to stop this disease."

- AP