The yuan dipped and the Australian dollar hit a six-week low on Wednesday as investors feared the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China could create more headaches for the Chinese economy, which is already slowing because of the U.S.-China trade war.
The virus, which causes a type of pneumonia, has spread to cities including Beijing and Shanghai as the number of patients in China more than tripled. More cases were also reported outside China, including the United States.
The yuan was steady after dipping earlier. It fell about 0.55% on Tuesday,its biggest decline in almost five months, in the onshore trade. It last stood at 6.9063 per dollar, almost flat on the day.
The Australian dollar, often used as a proxy bet on the Chinese economy, fell to as low as $0.6827, a trough last seen in mid-December, and last stood at $0.6837, down 0.13%.
The concerns surrounding the little-known virus propped up the safe-haven yen, which was firm at 109.98 yen, up from Tuesday's low of 110.23.
The newly-found virus evoked memories of the 2002/03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in southern China, which killed nearly 800 people globally and led to a sharp downturn in tourism in Asia.
Some say the impact could be felt more severely this time given the Chinese economy is now several times larger than it was in 2002-03.
On the other hand, with limited information available on the extent of the pandemic, market participants had little to chew on for now.
"This is certainly something companies need to think about for their contingency planning. But for financial markets, there isn't much to make a thorough case for trading in either direction given lack of further information," said Ayako Sera, market economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank.
Tohru Sasaki, head of Japan market research at JPMorgan, said that while the SARS outbreak caused a massive economic downturn in Hong Kong and Singapore for about eight weeks through a drop in tourism, the pandemic had limited impact on supply chains in Asia.
"If the latest virus reaches a similar magnitude, some economies such as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia could be negatively affected by a drop in tourism. But its long-term impact on the global economy and the currency market will be limited," he said.
The euro stood little changed at $1.1083.
Sterling traded at $1.3040, having gained a tad on Tuesday after data showed the British economy created jobs at its strongest rate in nearly a year in the three months to November.
The strong data slightly dented expectations of an interest rate cut by the Bank of England at the end of this month, though markets are still pricing in about a 60% chance of a 0.25 percentage point cut.
Correction: This Reuters report was updated to reflect that the Australian dollar touched near six-week lows earlier in the session. Reuters mischaracterized the level in a previous version of this story.