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Asia: Coronavirus fears rattle traders

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Fears over the new coronavirus rattled investors in Asia on Friday as they struggled to work out if the China epidemic was worse than being reported by authorities.

[HONG KONG] Fears over the new coronavirus rattled investors in Asia on Friday as they struggled to work out if the China epidemic was worse than being reported by authorities.

A dramatic rise in the number of deaths and new cases of the virus on Thursday fuelled global suspicions that Beijing was concealing the true scale of the illness.

Concern turned to confusion on Friday, however, as authorities lowered the revised death toll to 1,380 - from nearly 1,500 a day earlier - after double-counting some fatalities.

The uncertainty came as Vietnam quarantined more than 10,000 people in a cluster of villages after six virus cases were detected and Japan reported its first death.

"There are still some lingering concerns hanging like a cloud over the market that we could still get a surprise secondary transmission cluster," said Stephen Innes at AxiCorp.

"But the intensity and market de-risking is nowhere near the feverish pitches of last Friday."

Hong Kong fell 0.11 per cent at the open before recovering as investors weighed up the possibility that Thursday's sharp increase - triggered by a change in the way Chinese officials count new infections - was a one-off.

Mainland China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index was 0.59 per cent higher after dipping into the red at the open.

Tokyo was down 0.52 per cent amid concerns over the economic impact from the virus.

Elsewhere, Sydney put on 0.44 per cent, Seoul added 0.78 per cent and Taipei gained 0.35 per cent.

The surge in virus numbers sent Wall Street into the red on Thursday - a reversal from the previous day when the three main indexes closed at record highs.

In Britain, the resignation of finance minister Sajid Javid sent London's benchmark FTSE 100 index down as other major European markets posted narrower losses over fears about the epidemic's global economic impact.

'LACK OF TRANSPARENCY' 

China has been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its transparent handling of the outbreak.

There is still scepticism among the global public, with suggestions that Beijing may be concealing the extent of the virus the way it did during the 2002-2003 Sars epidemic.

Senior White House official Larry Kudlow said Thursday that the US was "a little disappointed in the lack of transparency" from China, which he said had refused American help.

Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, China's top leadership on Wednesday called for efforts to minimise the impact of the outbreak and pledged measures to help firms deal with the economic fallout.

A day later, the ruling Communist Party fired two top-ranking officials in Hubei.

The revised virus figures have played into investor fears that "it is going to take longer than just a few weeks before business can return to anything like normal in China," said Ray Attrill of National Australia Bank.

China is the world's biggest importer and consumer of oil, and crude prices have been particularly sensitive to the epidemic.

Global oil demand will suffer its first quarterly drop in a decade as the virus lashes China's economy and its impact ripples throughout the world, the International Energy Agency said Thursday.

The main contracts reacted mildly to the news. Brent Crude was down 0.02 per cent and West Texas Intermediate was 0.1 per cent higher.

AFP