Fears are mounting that a new coronavirus identified in China may spread, infecting not only humans but also the world's second-biggest economy already beset by a tit-for-tat trade war with the United States.
A potential pandemic of the novel virus, reminiscent of the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, would deal a blow to China's tourism and retail industries, further hampering the nation's economic growth, analysts said.
As Japan, a neighbor of China, is likely to receive a significant number of foreign visitors on the occasion of the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics, the world's third-largest economy would be also exposed to the threat of the virus, they added.
Late last year, health authorities in China's Wuhan said unexplained pneumonia cases had cropped up in the city, located around 1,000 kilometers south of Beijing. On Jan. 9, state-run media reported a new type of coronavirus has been confirmed.
(Electron micrograph shows a new coronavirus identified in China.)
[Photo courtesy of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, GISAID]
After announcing last week that a 61-year-old Wuhan man had died from mysterious pneumonia and an outbreak within a family had been spotted there, the local authorities said Wednesday the possibility cannot be ruled out that the virus is transmissible among humans.
On Thursday, a 69-year-old Wuhan man became the second reported fatality.
Elsewhere in Asia, Thailand and Singapore have detected infections, while Japan has confirmed its first case of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus from Wuhan.
As many Chinese are expected to travel abroad during the Lunar New Year holiday later this month, infections could become rampant mainly in Asian nations, pundits warn.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, told a press conference on Thursday, "There is no clear evidence that the virus would persistently transmit from people to people."
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, however, has said the new virus "has similarity with the SARS coronavirus," although it added, "Further genetic analyses are ongoing."
In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, possibly originating in bats, emerged and raged in China and then spread worldwide, killing 774 people.
(A street in the Chinese city of Wuhan is almost deserted as the shutdown of the seafood market, which has been linked to cases of a new coronavirus, continues on Jan. 17, 2020.)
That year, the Chinese economy was hit hard by the prevalence of the contagious, deadly coronavirus, which dissuaded foreigners from visiting the country and people living there from going out for shopping, dining and entertainment.
A group of researchers of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University said in their paper released in 2004 that the SARS pandemic led to a total loss of $25.3 billion to China's economy in the previous year.
With the tourism sector taking a knock, the growth rate of the country's gross domestic product then was calculated to have been 1 to 2 percentage points lower than it would have been if the SARS epidemic had not erupted, the group said.
Yusuke Miura, chief researcher at the Mizuho Research Institute in Tokyo, said, "It remains to be seen how much the infection of the new coronavirus will expand, but the reemerging of the SARS-like illness is certain to pose a downside risk to the Chinese economy."
"A decrease in foreign visitors to China would of course hurt the tourism industry. In addition, locals would try to avoid crowds in such places as shopping malls, which would undermine private consumption," he said.
Retail sales of consumer goods account for roughly 40 percent of China's GDP.
"If foreigners get more worried about the new virus, they would start to shy away from buying Chinese goods and investing in China," Miura said, adding, "The new virus could be a big headache to the Chinese economy that has been struggling to regain momentum."
(People wearing masks are seen at an airport in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 17, 2020.)
In 2019, the nation's economy grew 6.1 percent from a year earlier, its worst pace in 29 years, as trade spats with the United States have been stifling exports -- a key driver of growth. Chinese GDP last year totaled 99.09 trillion yuan ($14.42 trillion).
Some other economists, meanwhile, say that Japan could fall victim to the novel coronavirus, given that a particularly high number of people, including Chinese, are expected to visit Tokyo from overseas for the Olympic and Paralympic games later this year.
According to China's largest online travel operator Ctrip.com, Japan has become one of the most popular Chinese tourist destinations, along with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and that trend is set to continue this year.
This means the risk of a viral pandemic could increase in Japan unless the government makes every effort to strengthen quarantine controls at ports of entry, observers say.
In 2018, Japanese upper house lawmaker Ryuhei Kawada asked the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bolster measures to prevent the spread of infections like SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
If a new type of contagion similar to SARS or MERS gains prevalence at home in 2020, Japan could face an economic loss of 2.7 trillion yen ($24.50 billion) with 580,000 people losing jobs, Kawada said, citing government estimates.
Ahead of the major sports events scheduled to be held for more than a month from late July, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean health ministers have confirmed that the three neighbors will swiftly exchange information about infectious diseases.