Trump offers China 'any help' as virus toll grows, markets reel

SHANGHAI, Jan 27 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump offered China any help needed on Monday to control a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 81 people, stranded tens of millions during the biggest holiday of the year and rattled global markets.

With provincial authorities taking increasing flak from the public over their initial response, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited central Wuhan city, the epicenter of the outbreak, to encourage medical workers and promise reinforcements.

Global stocks fell, oil prices hit three-month lows, and China's yuan dipped to its weakest in 2020 as investors fretted about the impact on the world's second-biggest economy from travel bans and extended Lunar New Year holidays.

"We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus," tweeted Trump, who waged a bruising 18-month trade war with Beijing.

"Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi (Jinping) any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!"

Beijing authorities reported the capital's first coronavirus death on Monday - a 50-year-old person who had been to Wuhan, state media said.

Visiting Wuhan in a blue protective suit and mask, Li praised medics, said 2,500 more workers would join them in the next two days, and visited the construction site of a new hospital due to be built in days.

"Li ... thanked frontline medical workers for their all-out efforts in treating patients and urged them to pay attention to their own protection," Xinhua news agency said.

Li, the most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak began, was shown on state TV leading medical workers in chants of "Wuhan jiayou!" - an exhortation to keep their strength up.

On China's heavily censored social media, local officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have come from a market where wildlife was sold illegally.

Some lashed out at the governor of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, after he corrected himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced.

"If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely," said one user of the Weibo social media platform.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV the city's management of the crisis was "not good enough" - rare public self-criticism - and said he was willing to resign.

CITY IN LOCKDOWN

The city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.

People from the region have come under scrutiny within mainland China as well, questioned about recent travels.

"Hubei people are getting discriminated against," a Wuhan resident complained on Weibo.

A small number of cases linked to people who traveled from Wuhan have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, including Thailand, France, Japan and the United States where authorities said they had 110 people under investigation in 26 states.

Investors are worried about the impact on travel, tourism and broader economic activity. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as authorities limit travel and extend the week-long New Year holiday - when millions traditionally travel by rail, road and plane - by three days to limit the spread of the virus.

Asian and European shares tumbled, with Japan's Nikkei average sliding 2%, its biggest one-day fall in five months. Demand spiked for safe-haven assets such as the Japanese yen and Treasury notes. European stocks fell more than 2%.

"China is the biggest driver of global growth so this couldn't have started in a worse place," said Alec Young, FTSE Russell's managing director of global markets research.

During the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45%. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travelers now than it was then.

The total number of confirmed cases in China rose to 2,835, about half in Hubei. Some experts suspect a much higher number.

The number of deaths from the virus in Hubei climbed to 76 from 56, officials said, with five deaths elsewhere in China.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei in the past 14 days.

Some European tour operators canceled trips to China and offered customers refunds.

And governments from Japan to Spain were working on repatriating nationals from the Wuhan area.

(Reporting by Winni Zhou, Sun Yilei, Cheng Leng and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Cate Cadell, Gabriel Crossley and Yawen Chen in Beijing; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo, Lidia Kelly in Sydney, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Ben Blanchard in Tapei; Writing by Tony Munroe, Nick Macfie and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alison Williams and Lisa Shumaker)