Coronavirus: China reports drop in new cases for third straight day

China has reported a drop in new coronavirus cases for the third day in a row, as it became clear the country's leadership was aware of the outbreak's potential before the dangers were made public.

There were 2,009 new cases in mainland China on Saturday, bringing its total to 68,500, according to the country's National Health Commission.

The fatality rate remained stable at 142 deaths.

The figures have emerged after a 80-year-old Chinese tourist in Paris became the first person to die from the virus in Europe.

The number of dead in mainland China from COVID-19, the medical name for the acute respiratory disease caused by the virus, stands at 1,665.

China's fall in new cases follows a spike of more than 15,000 on Thursday, when the central province of Hubei adopted a new diagnostic method that includes clinical diagnoses in its official account.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had played a muted role in the early days of the epidemic, which has been one of the biggest political challenges of his tenure.

But state media published a speech on Saturday which Mr Xi delivered on 3 February, during which the Chinese president said he gave instructions on the fighting the virus as early as 7 January.

The disclosure indicates top leaders knew about the outbreak's potential severity weeks before such dangers were made known to the public.

It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

In his speech, the Chinese president also revealed that he ordered a lockdown of the virus epicentre of Wuhan in the Hubei province: "On January 22, in light of the epidemic's rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people."

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn confirmed the confirmed the first fatality from the infection in Europe on Saturday.

The man, who was from the Chinese province of Hubei, had been receiving treatment in a French hospital since 25 January.

He had been kept in isolation while receiving treatment, but his condition is said to have deteriorated rapidly.

He had arrived in France on 16 January.

His daughter was also treated for coronavirus in the same hospital, but has now recovered according to authorities.

His case is one of 12 French cases of COVID-19.

Six of those cases are British nationals who caught the virus from "superspreader" Steve Walsh after coming into contact with him in the French Alps during a skiing holiday.

Ms Buzyn warned: "Our health system must be prepared to face a possible virus spreading across the country."

She says she will be meeting with medical authorities on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

The man was the fourth death to be reported outside mainland China. The virus has so far spread to more than two dozen countries.

The World Health Organisation ha sent a team of 24 health experts to China to investigate how the virus is spreading and its severity.

Meanwhile, in Japan, preparations are under way to evacuate American citizens from the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that has been quarantined off Japan.

Around 400 American passengers have been told to decide by Sunday morning whether they will stay or take chartered aircraft arranged by the US government to fly them home. The flights are expected on Sunday evening local time.

Those taking the chartered planes will be taken to Travis Air Force Base in California, with some continuing to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where they will have to undergo another 14-day quarantine.

So far, 285 people from the ship have tested positive for the virus after 67 new cases were found Saturday. Those with symptoms such as fever and cough will not be allowed to board the evacuation flights.

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Temporary hospitals have been set up in gymnasiums and public buildings across the Hubei province of China to facilitate early testing and treatment.

Meanwhile 285 cases of the virus have been confirmed on a quarantined cruise ship in Japan.

The Diamond Princess in Yokohama, near Tokyo, has around 3,700 passengers in total, including tourists from Britain, America and Australia.