Coronavirus evacuations begin as China cases outstrip Sars | Global development | The Guardian

Show caption A chartered aircraft operated by All Nippon Airways prepares to leave Tokyo for Wuhan. Photograph: Jiji Press/EPA

Global development

Wed 29 Jan 2020 00.32 EST

Japan and the US have airlifted hundreds of their citizens from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, as officials in China said the death toll from the disease had risen sharply overnight to 132, with nearly 1,500 new cases in the country.

A government-chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese nationals arrived in Tokyo from Wuhan on Wednesday morning. Officials said four of the passengers – a woman and three men – had coughs and fevers and had been taken to a hospital in separate ambulances for treatment and further tests.

The government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said there was no confirmation yet of whether they were infected with the virus.

Coronavirus live updates: US and Japanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China – latest news

Pressure is mounting on China to control the spread of the disease. The country’s national health commission on Wednesday said the total number of deaths from the flu-like virus rose by 26 on Tuesday, with almost all of the new cases in Hubei province, which is under virtual lockdown.

The number of confirmed cases rose to a total of 5,974 – overtaking the 5,327 confirmed cases in mainland China during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic. The Sars outbreak killed more than 770 people globally, including 349 in mainland China.

Officials in the US, meanwhile, said a chartered plane had left Wuhan earlier on Wednesday with about 200 US citizens onboard, including staff from the local US consulate.

“These travellers will be carefully screened and monitored to protect their health, as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans,” US state department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Australia said on Wednesday it would help “vulnerable or isolated” citizens leave Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and quarantine them on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean that is home to a controversial detention centre for asylum seekers.

Wearing surgical masks, Takeo Aoyama, center left, and Takayuki Kato, center right, speak to journalists after returning home from Wuhan on a Japanese chartered plane Photograph: Haruka Nuga/AP

Britain is finalising plans to repatriate citizens from in and around Wuhan. The European Union will fly its citizens out aboard two French planes this week, and South Korea was due to do the same. Several other countries were assessing their options.

One of the Japanese passengers, Takeo Aoyama, said he was relieved to be home. “We were feeling increasingly uneasy as the situation developed so rapidly and we were still in the city,” Aoyama, wearing a surgical mask, said at Haneda airport in Tokyo.

“We were not able to move freely, so we only had partial information. The restrictions on the flow of goods and transport were extremely strict.”

Aoyama, who works at Nippon Steel’s subsidiary in Wuhan, said more than 400 of his compatriots wishing to return to Japan were still in the city, including employees of a Japanese supermarket chain that had stayed open during the lockdown.

“I hope we can also provide support for the Chinese people, which I think would also help the Japanese people who are still there,” he said.

Another evacuee, Takayuki Kato, said all of the passengers had had their temperatures taken before the plane left Wuhan and again by a doctor during the flight. “Everyone in the city began wearing masks. On the 23rd, when transport was shut down, I became very alarmed,” he said.

What is the coronavirus and how worried should we be?

All of the passengers were expected to undergo further health checks, with those showing symptoms to be hospitalised and the remainder to undergo “self-quarantine” at home until they can be declared free of the virus.

Around 650 Japanese nationals in the Wuhan area have said they want to return home. Reports said a second plane was due to leave Tokyo on Wednesday evening, with additional flights planned.

The first flight had arrived in the Chinese city on Tuesday night carrying emergency supplies, including 15,000 masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves and 8,000 protective glasses, the foreign ministry said.

In and around Wuhan, more than 50 million people have been locked down as authorities struggle to stop an infection that has since spread to more than 15 countries.

Officials in Germany said four people from the same company were infected after one of them contracted it from a colleague while visiting their workplace in China.

Late on Tuesday, Japan reported its first possible case of human-to-human transition, with reports that a coach driver in his 60s had tested positive after twice driving groups of tourists from Wuhan earlier this month. The man is reportedly recovering.

Japan’s health ministry has so far confirmed seven cases of the virus in the country.

On Wednesday an Australian research facility announced it had the first team outside China to recreate the deadly virus in a lab, which will improve the speed and accuracy of testing and increase the chances of developing a vaccine.

“This is one step, a piece in the puzzle that we have contributed,” said virus identification laboratory head Dr Julian Druce, from Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute.

With Reuters