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Australia: Shares end lower as virus worries persist

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The S&P/ASX 200 index slipped 0.8 per cent, or 50.20 points, to 6,657.90 at the close of trade.

[SYDNEY] Australian shares closed lower for the fourth straight session on Thursday as sentiment remained fragile following the rapid spread of the coronavirus, with the country kicking off emergency measures to contain the outbreak.

The S&P/ASX 200 index slipped 0.8 per cent, or 50.20 points, to 6,657.90 at the close of trade. The benchmark has tumbled 6.7 per cent this week through Thursday's close, wiping out about US$100.26 billion in companies' market value.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday became one of the world's first leaders to acknowledge the threat of the virus spreading beyond global containment efforts.

"We believe the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us,"Mr Morrison told a news conference in Canberra.

Australia has reported 23 cases of coronavirus, although 15 - all of whom arrived from China - have now been discharged from hospital.

The impact on local businesses has also been extensive with the epidemic prompting firms to cut over US$500 million from profit forecasts in the current financial year, according to a Reuters analysis.

The heavyweight financial stocks weighed on the benchmark on Thursday, extending a four-day losing streak that also marked the lowest close since early January.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index fell 0.8 per cent, or 96.69 points, to finish the session at 11,437.17.

REUTERS