WUHAN, CHINA – Airlines began suspending flights to and from China on Wednesday as the World Health Organization called an urgent meeting over whether a viral epidemic that has killed 132 people and infected around 6,000 others should be declared a global health emergency.
The flight suspensions came as some countries began flights to repatriate their nationals trapped in Wuhan, the quarantined Chinese city of 11 million people at the center of the epidemic.
A growing number of governments — including the United States, U.K. and Germany — have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China. Beijing has urged Chinese citizens to delay trips abroad, with at least 18 countries having confirmed cases of the disease.
In Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization “deeply regrets” its reports last week that referred to the global risk of the outbreak as “moderate” instead of “high.
A meeting of WHO experts on Thursday could upgrade it further. “I have decided to reconvene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the new #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) tomorrow,” Tedros wrote on Twitter.
“The whole world needs to be on alert now,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday. “The whole world needs to take action.”
British Airways was the first major airline to announce a suspension of flights to and from China, citing the travel advice of the foreign office.
It was followed by German flag carrier Lufthansa, one of Europe’s largest airlines, which said all flights to mainland China would be suspended until Feb. 9. The announcement included subsidiaries Swiss and Austrian Airlines.
Indonesia’s Lion Air Group, Southeast Asia’s biggest carrier by fleet size, said it would halt services to and from China from Saturday, and airlines from Myanmar and Nepal followed suit.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has reduced flights, citing low demand and the city government’s response plan to the virus.
Meanwhile Kazakhstan, an important trade partner for China, stopped issuing visas to Chinese citizens and said it would halt cross-border passenger train traffic and suspend flights.
In one of the most dramatic measures, the tiny Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea announced no travelers from Asia would be allowed in.
Countries have scrambled to get their citizens out of Wuhan safely, but have faced logistical, medical and bureaucratic hurdles.
A U.S. charter flight from Wuhan with about 210 Americans on board — including consulate staff — was met at a California military base on Wednesday by emergency vehicles with flashing lights and personnel in white biological hazard suits. The evacuees will be monitored for symptoms and sent to local hospitals if they are found to be ill, the U.S. defense department said.
Some 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans will be flown out of Wuhan on board two French planes this week. France said it would keep its returnees in a holding facility in Paris for 14 days — the estimated incubation period for the virus. .
The Italian government said it would send an aircraft on Thursday. Up to 70 Italians are reportedly in Wuhan.
Australia plans to house any citizens evacuated on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.
China has taken extraordinary measures to try and stop the disease spreading, including bans on tour groups traveling overseas, suspending schools and extending the Lunar New Year holiday.
Most street traffic in and around Wuhan has been banned in an unprecedented quarantine effort, leaving more than 50 million people shuttered in their homes.
“This is the first day since the lockdown that I’ve had to go out,” a man in his 50s said Wednesday on the mostly deserted streets of the industrial city.
“I have no choice because I need to buy food.”
The scale of the deepening crisis was emphasized with the total number of infections on the Chinese mainland exceeding that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03.
But the death toll is so far much lower than SARS, which claimed nearly 800 lives around the world — with most fatalities in mainland China and Hong Kong.
The virus is believed to have originated in a wild-animal market in Wuhan, where it jumped to humans before spreading across the country as the peak travel period for Lunar New Year festivities got underway.
The virus has rattled global markets and started to dent an already-slowing Chinese economy.
Japanese automaker Toyota said it would keep its plants in China closed until at least Feb. 9.
Tech giant Foxconn said Wednesday that Taiwan staff at its vast network of factories in China do not need to return to work until mid-February — a move likely to impact global supply chains for technology firms that rely on the Taiwan company to manufacture everything from iPhones to flat-screen TVs and laptops.
The virus has also disrupted sporting events, with a women’s football Olympic qualifier event moved from Wuhan to Australia.
Despite the precaution, the Chinese team was quarantined in a Brisbane hotel after arriving for the competition, according to Australian media.
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