SHANGHAI: China reported a record rise in imported coronavirus cases on Friday (Mar 20) as expatriates returned home from the United States and Europe, sparking fears of a second wave of infections just as the country recovers from the initial outbreak.
All 41 of the new confirmed cases in China were imported from abroad, the country's National Health Commission said on Saturday, bringing the total number of such cases to 269.
Beijing and Shanghai were the main entry points for the returnees, many of whom are students who were studying abroad, according to official reports. They have come back after many education campuses in the United States and Europe shut down to stem rapidly rising infection rates there.
Also returning in a flight to safety were China-based expats, as businesses begin to reopen.
The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China stood at 81,008 at the end of Friday, the health authority said. The death toll was 3,255, up by seven, a much slower rate than at the height of the crisis.
The lack of locally transmitted cases for the third day running underscored a recovery that has prompted officials to relax restrictions, even in the virus epicentre of Wuhan, which was responsible for all seven new deaths.
City officials said last week that residents could walk around their compounds, loosening restrictions that had kept them to their personal living areas.
On Saturday, the official Xinhua news agency said commercial outlets in residential communities and villages without existing cases of COVID-19 can resume business, citing the municipal bureau of commerce.
As well as Beijing and Shanghai, the major transport hub of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, has facilitated infected returnees. The southern provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and the eastern provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang, as well as Shaanxi and Sichuan have also all reported cases.
The rate of infection has been slowing for weeks in China, while the rest of the world steps up measures to try and battle the raging pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday praised China's success in controlling the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged late last year.
"Wuhan provides hope for the rest of the world that even the most severe situation can be turned around," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference in Geneva.
About 56 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province were locked down in late January, but authorities are progressively easing the travel curbs as cases have dwindled.
As the crisis shifts from Asia to Europe, China's death toll was overtaken this week by Italy, where more than 4,000 people have now died.
The outbreak has infected more than 250,000 people around the world with more than 11,000 worldwide fatalities.