(Repeats adding additional reporting credit, text unchanged)
* New infections fall below 2,000 for 1st time since Jan. 30
* Experts say too early to tell if China outbreak contained
* Apple to miss revenue guidance for March qtr due to virus
* S. Korea faces economic emergency, president says
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Feb 18 (Reuters) - China reported on Tuesday its fewest new coronavirus infections since January and its lowest daily death toll for a week, but the World Health Organization said data suggesting the epidemic had slowed should still be viewed with caution.
Apple Inc warned that its sales would suffer as the epidemic hurt both its supply in China and its demand, an announcement that knocked the wind out of global stock markets.
The head of a leading hospital in China’s central city of Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, died of the disease on Tuesday, becoming one of the most prominent victims since the disease first appeared at the end of last year.
Chinese officials reported 1,886 new cases - the first time the daily figure has fallen below 2,000 since Jan. 30 - bringing the mainland China total to 72,436. A figure of 98 new deaths marked the first time the daily toll in China had fallen below 100 since Feb. 11, bringing the total to 1,868.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Chinese data “appears to show a decline in new cases” but any apparent trend “must be interpreted very cautiously”.
Outside China, there have been 827 cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, and five deaths, according to a Reuters count based on official statements. More than half of those cases have been on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan.
China says figures showing a slowdown in new cases in recent days show that aggressive steps it has taken to curb travel and commerce are slowing the spread of the disease beyond central Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan.
But Tom Wingfield, a senior lecturer and physician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said: “It is too early to be certain whether this represents a sustained reduction in COVID-19 transmission and that the epidemic has peaked.”
The numbers appeared encouraging, said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Britain’s University of Edinburgh, who described himself as cautious.
“Though it is unrealistic to reduce the transmission rate to zero it may have been reduced to a level where the epidemic is brought under control,” Woolhouse said.
“It may be that epidemic is simply running its natural course, and is starting to run out of new people to infect. It could also be that the unprecedented public health measures introduced in China are having the desired effect.”
Chinese state television said Liu Zhiming, the director of Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, died on Tuesday, the seventh health worker to fall victim. The hospital was designated solely for treating virus-infected patients.
While China says its lockdown of cities and tough curbs on travel and movement have limited the spread of the virus, this has come at great cost to its economy, with repercussions for global businesses.
Stock markets had nonetheless roared ahead, boasted by expectations of stimulus measures to keep China’s economy humming. But Apple’s warning it would fall short of guidance for quarterly revenue because of slower iPhone production and weak Chinese demand sent markets lower.
“We have been pointing out that the market reaction in past weeks was excessively constructive and this could be a wake-up call to all investors that ignored so far potential negative impact,” analysts at UniCredit said.
Chinese state television quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China could still meet its economic growth target for 2020 despite the epidemic.
Economists are warning of potential mass layoffs in China later this year if the virus is not contained soon.
“The employment situation is OK in the first quarter, but if the virus is not contained by end-March, then from the second quarter, we’ll see a big round of layoffs,” said Dan Wang, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Job losses could run as high as 4.5 million, he forecast.
Firms in China’s services sector and small manufacturers are bearing the brunt of the impact so far. When cameraman Mark Xia returned to his job this month after holidays, the Shanghai video production house where he worked told him to take three months’ leave with no pay. He is looking for a new job.
“I understand the company’s cash-flow is tight,” Xia, 25, told Reuters. “We postponed some shooting due to the coronavirus outbreak, and that’s had a huge impact on our revenues. That’s the reality.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the economy was in an emergency situation and required stimulus as the epidemic had disrupted demand for South Korean goods.
Singapore announced a $4.5 billion financial package to help contain the outbreak in the city-state and weather its economic impact.
Singapore Airlines Ltd said it would temporarily cut flights in the three months to May, as the epidemic hits demand for services touching and transiting the key travel hub.
Japan, where the economy was already shrinking and the epidemic has created fears of recession, the spread of the virus has prompted Tokyo to put limits on public crowds while some companies are telling employees to work from home.
Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Lusha Zhang, Gabriel Crossley and Se Young Lee in Beijing, and Kate Kelland in London Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Graff Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.