Number of coronavirus cases inside China is now greater than the 2003 SARS outbreak

Several countries have begun moving their citizens out of the Chinese city hardest-hit by an outbreak of a new virus that has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad.

A Japanese flight carrying 206 evacuees home included four people with coughs and fevers. The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital on separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks.

The Japanese flight was bringing 20,000 face masks as well as protective gear, all in short supply as Chinese hospitals treat a growing number of patients. Wuhan is building two hospitals in a matter of days to add 2,500 beds for treatment of patients with the virus.

It wasn’t immediately known whether they were infected with the new type of coronavirus that appeared in the central city of Wuhan in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.

China’s latest figures cover the previous 24 hours and add 26 to the number of deaths, 25 of which were in the central province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. The 5,974 cases on the mainland marked a rise of 1,459 from the previous day, although that rise is a smaller increase than the 1,771 new cases reported on Monday.

The number of coronavirus cases inside of China has surpassed that of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which at its height saw 5,327 people infected, however, the death toll remains lower. 

Dozens of infections have been confirmed outside mainland China as well, including cases in: Taiwan, Australia, Cambodia, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, the U.S. and Canada. On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates’ health ministry said four members of a Chinese family were infected in the first cases announced in the Gulf state, state news agency WAM said. 

A plane carrying Americans who had been in Wuhan landed in Anchorage, Alaska, Tuesday evening, where they will be rescreened for the virus. Approximately 210 U.S. citizens are being relocated. Hospitals are prepared to treat or quarantine people who may be infected. Then the plane is scheduled to fly to California.

An ambulance carrying evacuees from Wuhan, China, arrives at Ebara Hospital in Tokyo Wednesday after the first group of Japanese evacuees returned. Four of the evacuees had a cough and fever and were taken to hospital. (Kyodo News via The Associated Press)

Canada, for its part, is still working on its plans to get Canadians out of the affected area. Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Tuesday that 250 Canadians living there have registered online with Global Affairs Canada, with about 126 requesting consular assistance to get home.

Italy is arranging a flight on Thursday to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, the country’s foreign ministry said Wednesday. Around 50 Italians were stranded in the city, which has been largely isolated in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, a ministry official said.

The United Kingdom’s health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC Thursday that British nationals being flown back from Wuhan will be quarantined for two weeks. The U.K. is also warning against “all but essential travel” to mainland China amid the outbreak. 

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said he expects the evacuation of German citizens from China is set to get underway in the next few hours.

Hong Kong’s leader said the territory will cut all rail links to the mainland and halve the number of flights to stop the spread of the virus.

WATCH | Hong Kong closes borders as China battle coronavirus:

As China continues to battle a growing coronavirus epidemic, Hong Kong has bowed to pressure and closed its borders to reduce the flow of people coming in from the mainland. 1:59

South Korea also said it will send a plane, and France, Mongolia and other governments also planned evacuations.

China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. The lockdown has trapped more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

The sharp rise in infections recently suggests significant human-to-human spread of the virus, though it could also be explained by expanded monitoring efforts, said Malik Peiris, chair in virology at the University of Hong Kong.

Officials said on Wednesday that the virus outbreak in neighbouring city of Huanggang city is especially severe, adding the city cannot be allowed to become the second Wuhan.

Governor of Hubei province Wang Xiaodong said during a press briefing that companies in the province should not resume work before the end of Feb 13.

Huanggang, a city of 7.5 million people, has reported five deaths and 324 cases as of end-Tuesday, the second-most in both accounts among the cities in the province behind Wuhan. 

WHO says coronavirus is ‘highest priority’

Experts worry the new virus may spread more easily than originally thought, or may have mutated into a form that does so. It is from the coronavirus family, which also can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS, which both emerged in the past two decades and are thought to have come from animals.

The new virus causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia. It is thought to have spread to people from wild animals sold at a Wuhan market. China on Sunday temporarily banned trade in wild animals and urged people to stop eating meat from them.

On Tuesday, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss the latest information on the outbreak and reiterate their commitment to bringing it under control, WHO said in a news release.

“The National Health Commission presented China’s strong public health capacities and resources to respond and manage respiratory disease outbreaks,” the release said.

It said discussions focused on ways to cooperate to contain the virus in Wuhan and other cities and provinces and studies that could contribute to the development of medical countermeasures such as vaccines and treatments. Other WHO experts will visit China as soon as possible, it said.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” Tedros said.

The source of the virus and the full extent of its spread are still unknown. However, WHO said most cases reported to date “have been milder, with around 20 per cent of those infected experiencing severe illness.”

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