Workers in protective suits work at the production line manufacturing detection kits for the new coronavirus at a company, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, China January 29 2020. Picture: CNSPHOTO/ REUTERS
Workers in protective suits work at the production line manufacturing detection kits for the new coronavirus at a company, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, China January 29 2020. Picture: CNSPHOTO/ REUTERS

Beijing/Shanghai — The US and Japan flew citizens out of the Chinese city at the epicentre of a new virus outbreak on Wednesday, as the death toll rose sharply to 132 and the first case appeared in the Middle East.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is confident in China’s ability to contain the coronavirus, but concern is mounting as health authorities reported that the number of confirmed cases had jumped by 1,459 to 5,974.

Streets were deserted in many major cities in China as the number of deaths from the flu-like virus rose by 26 to 132, almost all in the province of Hubei, the capital of which is Wuhan, where the virus emerged in December in a wild-animal market.

The central province of about 60-million people is under virtual lockdown.

“I was extremely worried that I was stuck there while the situation was changing very rapidly,” said Takeo Aoyama, who arrived in Tokyo on a chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese nationals out of Wuhan, with more flights planned.

“I feel really relieved,” Aoyama, an employee of Nippon Steel who was wearing a mask, told reporters at the airport in the Japanese capital.

Two of those evacuated had symptoms of pneumonia but a coronavirus diagnosis has not been confirmed, hospital representatives said later.

Concern is also growing over the effect of the virus on the world’s second-biggest economy, with airlines cutting flights to China — British Airways is the latest to announce a suspension —  and global companies curbing employees’ travel there.

The gambling hub of Macau was virtually a ghost town, while malls and shopping centres in Asian capitals such as Bangkok were empty, with many who ventured outdoors wearing green or white masks.

Sectors from mining to luxury goods have been shaken by concerns about the possibility of a worst-case pandemic.

Hong Kong stocks took a beating on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year break. Casino and financial stocks led the Hang Seng index 2.5% lower to a seven-month trough.

Regional markets, however, arrested their slide, with stocks in Japan, Australia, Korea and India steady or firmer and currencies mostly stable. Chinese markets resume trade on February 3.

“In our view, the worst is yet to come,” Japanese securities firm Nomura said in a note, warning of a severe near-term blow to China’s economy.

Laboratory breakthrough

But in what could be a major step towards reining in the disease, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside China.

As infections spread, numerous countries are scrambling to get citizens out of Wuhan while, at the same time, hoping to keep the virus at bay.

A US government official who declined to be identified said a US charter plane had left Wuhan. It had 220 people aboard, a US diplomatic source added, with 50 diplomats and contractors among them.

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

US officials said the White House was weighing whether to suspend flights to China in what would be a drastic measure to control the spread of the disease.

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.

Global spread

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 globally in 2002 and 2003.

While some experts believe the new strain, known as “2019-nCoV”, is not as deadly as SARS, alarm has grown over its rapid spread and many unknown attributes, such as how lethal it is.

Like other respiratory infections, it is spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes, with an incubation time between one and 14 days. There are signs it may also be able to spread before symptoms show.

Wuhan, with a population of 11-million, is racing to build two dedicated hospitals with 2,600 beds for victims, the official People’s Daily said.

About 60 cases, but no deaths, have been reported in 15 other countries, including the US, France and Singapore. Airports around the world are screening passengers from China and several airlines curtailed or halted flights.

McDonald’s said it had closed several hundred restaurants in Hubei province and Starbucks  said it had closed more than half of its coffee shops in mainland China — about 2,000 of them. Toyota Motor  said it was halting production in the country. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) diagnosed its first four cases in a family from Wuhan, state news agency WAM said.

The WHO said person-to-person transmission has taken place, largely in Wuhan but also elsewhere in China and abroad, though the virus was too little known to allow a definite conclusion about the intensity of transmission.

Reuters

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