SHANGHAI/PARIS (Reuters) -- An 80-year-old Chinese tourist infected with the coronavirus has died in France, Paris said on Saturday, becoming the first fatality in Europe and the fourth outside mainland China from an epidemic that has rattled the world.
Thought to have come from a wildlife market in the central Chinese province of Hubei, the outbreak has presented the ruling Communist Party with a huge challenge in curbing its spread while minimizing damage to the world's second-largest economy.
Beijing's latest figures on Saturday showed 66,492 cases and 1,523 deaths, mostly in Hubei. Outside mainland China there have been about 500 cases in some two dozen countries and territories, with four deaths - in Japan, Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, the Philippines and France.
In the French case, the Chinese man died at the Bichat hospital in Paris of a lung infection due to the flu-like virus, authorities said.
"We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France," said Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.
Robin Thompson, an expert in mathematical epidemiology at Britain’s University of Oxford, said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising. "The most important thing to point out, however, is that there still hasn't been sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe," he added.
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country.
Those returning to Beijing from the holiday have been ordered to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine to prevent the virus' spread. Many factories are yet to re-open, disrupting global supply chains for everyone from smartphone makers to car manufacturers.
While there has been some hope expressed this week that the disease may be peaking in China, numbers keep rising and a trend has been hard to discern, especially after a reclassification that widened the definition of cases.
The biggest cluster outside China has been on a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, quarantined off Japan's Yokohama. Out of about 3,700 passengers and crew on board, 285 people have tested positive and been sent to hospital.
The United States said on Saturday it plans to send an aircraft to pick up American passengers and take them back home where they face another two weeks of isolation "out of an abundance of caution".
"They are very concerned about spreading the virus, and there’s no good way to transport people from Japan without possible transfer of the virus, so it is the logical thing to do," passenger Sawyer Smith, 25, told Reuters.