People wait in line to buy protective masks at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JUSTIN CHIN
People wait in line to buy protective masks at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JUSTIN CHIN

Beijing — The death toll from a new coronavirus in China rose sharply to 132 on Wednesday with nearly 1,500 new cases, as Japan said it flew citizens out of the central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Several countries are trying to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. A US charter plane departed from Wuhan on Wednesday, said a US official, but it was unclear who was on board. US officials said the White House was weighing whether to suspend flights to the country in a drastic measure to control the spread of the disease.

“All options for dealing with infectious disease spread have to be on the table, including travel restrictions,” said US health secretary Alex Azar.

The White House is holding daily meetings on the outbreak and monitoring China-US flights as a likely source of infections, sources briefed on the matter said, though it had decided against suspending air traffic for the time being. A senior Trump administration official said airlines had not been asked to suspend flights, after CNBC reported that the White House had told airline executives it was considering such a move.

Fears of the spreading virus have already pushed airlines around the world to reduce flights to China and global companies to restrict employee travel to the country, while sectors from mining to luxury goods have been shaken by concerns over global growth in the event of a worst-case pandemic.

China’s National Health Commission said the total of deaths from the flu-like virus rose by 26 on Tuesday to 132, almost all in the province of Hubei which is under virtual lockdown, while the number of confirmed cases rose by 1,459 to stand at 5,974. The number of cases in China now exceeds its tally of 5,327 infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus that killed about 800 people around the world in 2002/2003.

While some experts believe the new strain is not as deadly as SARS, it has created alarm because it is spreading quickly and key features are still unknown, such as its lethality and whether it is infectious before symptoms show.

Evacuations start

A chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Wednesday, with additional flights planned.

A US government official who declined to be identified told Reuters a US charter plane had departed from Wuhan earlier on Wednesday, without elaborating on the number of passengers on board. Earlier, the US embassy in Beijing said a chartered plane would pick up its consular staff and some private US citizens on Wednesday.

Australia said it would help some citizens leave Hubei and quarantine them on Christmas Island, a remote speck in the Indian Ocean best known for housing asylum seekers.

Timelapse video shot at Melbourne's Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity shows a sample of the coronavirus successfully growing in the laboratory. It will provide expert international laboratories with crucial information to help combat the virus.

New cases were reported around the world including Germany, where four people from the same company were infected in one of the first cases of person-to-person transmission outside China. The German cases raise concerns about the human-to-human spread of the virus, which can be transmitted in droplets from coughs and sneezes and has an incubation period of up to 14 days.

Wuhan is racing to build two dedicated hospitals to treat coronavirus patients, with the first 1,000-bed facility to be completed on Monday February 3. The capacity of the second will be expanded from 1,300 to 1,600 beds, the official People’s Daily said on Wednesday.

Scientists grow virus

Known as “2019-nCoV”, the newly identified coronavirus emerged late in 2019 in Wuhan, a major transport hub and capital of the central province of Hubei with a population of 11- million. While China has since moved to lock down most of Hubei, with a population around the same as Italy, the virus has still spread to more than a dozen countries from France to the US.

The epidemic broke out on the eve of China’s Lunar New Year holidays, when millions of Chinese travel abroad and at home. Many of those flights have now been cancelled, and airports globally are screening passengers from China for signs of infection.

In a major step towards reining in the spread of the disease, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside of China. The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they would share the sample, grown from an infected patient, with the World Health Organisation and laboratories elsewhere.

“Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities,” said Julian Druce, head of the Doherty Institute’s virus identification laboratory.

Asian stock markets erased earlier gains, with Hong Kong shares tumbling to a seven-week low on Wednesday as the surge in new cases fuelled fears about the economic effect of the virus.

Policy sources have told Reuters that Beijing plans to set an economic growth target of around 6% in 2020 from last year's 6% to 6.5%. A Reuters poll of economists in January showed China's economic growth is expected to slow to 5.9% in 2020, the weakest clip since 1990. 


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