(This Feb. 8 story has been corrected to remove erroneous reference to the American citizen who died as a man, as the U.S. embassy did not state the gender of the deceased)
By Tom Daly and Min Zhang
BEIJING (Reuters) - A 60-year-old American has died of the new coronavirus, the first confirmed non-Chinese death of the illness, U.S. officials said, as millions of Chinese began returning home after a Lunar New Year break that was extended to try to contain the outbreak.
While the vast majority of cases have been in China, the virus has spread to some two dozen countries abroad, including five British nationals infected in a French mountain resort.
The American died on Thursday in Wuhan, epicenter of the virus outbreak in the central Chinese province of Hubei, a U.S. embassy spokesman said in Beijing on Saturday. He did not elaborate.
A Japanese man in his sixties and hospitalized with pneumonia in Wuhan, capital of Hubei, also died after suffering symptoms consistent with the new coronavirus, Japan’s foreign ministry said.
The virus has been a blow to China’s already-slowing economy, with Goldman Sachs cutting its first-quarter GDP growth target to 4% from 5.6% previously and saying a deeper hit is possible.
“It’s certainly not going to be a return to normal next week,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics in Singapore.
The death toll in mainland China rose to 723 on Saturday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, looking likely to pass the 774 deaths recorded globally during the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
GRAPHIC: Comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS - here
Most of the deaths in China have occurred in and around Wuhan. Across mainland China, the number of cases stood at 34,598, the WHO said.
The virus has spread to 27 countries and regions, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China - in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Both victims were Chinese nationals.
WHO expert Mike Ryan told a news conference in Geneva that the number of new cases in Hubei had stabilized over the last four days, “which may reflect the impact of control measures put in place”.
Speaking later to Reuters he cautioned, however, that “it’s not a decline. That can just mean four days of relative calm before it accelerates.”
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The latest patients outside China include five British nationals staying in the same chalet at a ski village in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, French health officials said, raising fears of further infections at a busy period in the ski season.
The five, including a child, had been lodged in the same chalet with a British man believed to have contracted the virus in Singapore. They were not in a serious condition, the officials said.
France issued a new travel advisory for its citizens, saying it did not recommend traveling to China unless there was an “imperative” reason. Italy asked children traveling from China to stay away from school for two weeks voluntarily.
GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus - here
Hidden among the statistics are poignant tales of grief and frustration. Canadian mother Amelia Pan is at home while her two-year-old daughter, Cerena, is running a fever and stranded in Hubei where her father has contracted the virus.
“I am just hanging in there,” Pan said in a Skype interview. “I need to stay strong so I can fight for my family.”
China’s Communist Party rulers have sealed off cities, canceled flights and closed factories, a response that has dented the world’s second-biggest economy and had ripple effects globally for financial markets and businesses dependent on China.
China’s economy will sputter toward normal on Monday, as millions return to the big cities after the biggest holiday of the year. The holiday was extended, but many workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers will continue to work from home. U.S. electric carmaker Tesla’s (TSLA.O) factory in Shanghai will resume production on Monday, a government official said on Saturday. Apple Inc APPL.O said it was working to reopen its China corporate offices and call centers and was making preparations to reopen retail stores there. But Chinese authorities have blocked a plan by Apple supplier Foxconn (2317.TW) to resume production from Feb. 10 over concerns about the spread of the virus, Japan’s Nikkei business daily reported on Saturday.
Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), facing supply chain disruptions, said it had postponed restarting production at most China plants in its joint venture with SAIC Motor (600104.SS) and the Tianjin plant in its JV with FAW Group SASACJ.UL until Feb. 17.
News of the death on Friday of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was reprimanded by police for raising the alarm about the new coronavirus, sparked outrage on Chinese social media.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong introduced a two-week quarantine on Saturday for all people arriving from the mainland, or who have been there during the previous 14 days.
The Pentagon is shrinking the size of its delegation traveling to the Singapore Airshow 2020 and U.S. defense firms Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Raytheon Co (RTN.N) said they would not attend. Singapore has 40 coronavirus infections.
Another three people on a cruise liner off Japan tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases from the ship to 64, Japan’s health ministry said.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCL.N) on Friday banned “any guests holding Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passports, regardless of when they were there last” from boarding the company’s ships.
The WHO warned on Friday against the “unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity”.
Reporting by Ryan Woo, Colin Qian, Min Zhang, Se Young Lee, Yan Zhang, Cheng Leng, Judy Hua, Tom Daly and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Samuel Shen, Yilei Sun in Shanghai, Marine Pennetier and Sarah White in Paris, Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Frances Kerry