Countries began evacuating their citizens on Wednesday from the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is the epicentre of coronavirus, as the number of sick overtakes those infected with SARS.
A Japanese flight that brought back evacuees from the city of Wuhan, including four passengers with coughs and fevers. Two were diagnosed with pneumonia.
The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital in separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks. Another woman developed nausea at the airport and was also hospitalised.
It wasn’t immediately known whether they were infected with the new type of coronavirus, which first appeared in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.
The number of confirmed cases jumped to 5,974 on Wednesday, surpassing the 5,327 in mainland China during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.
The death toll rose to 132, which is still lower than the 348 people who were killed in China by SARS. Scientists say there are still many critical questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how transmissible and severe it is.
The United Arab Emirates reported its first cases on Wednesday in four members of a family who had come from Wuhan, the state-run news agency reported. It wasn’t immediately clear how many family members were involved.
British Airways announced it was immediately suspending all flights to and from mainland China after the UK government warned against unnecessary travel to the country. BA said in a statement on Wednesday that they "apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.” The airline operates daily flights from London’s Heathrow Airport to Shanghai and Beijing.
British health secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that “anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all necessary medical attention.” The measures are a step up from what the country did during the devastating 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak, when returning travellers from West Africa were asked to monitor themselves for symptoms.
Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the measures are justified for public health reasons.
“Those are the sorts of measures that will protect countries from the introduction of the virus and onward transmission,” he said. “There’s always a balance between the draconian measures of public health and what people might want to do, and obviously it’s regrettable if people who turn out not to have the virus are quarantined unnecessarily.”
The outbreak has also affected international sporting events, with the International Hockey Federation postponing Pro League games in China, and qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled in February in football, basketball and boxing being moved outside of the country. With just 177 days before the summer games, Tokyo organisers are on edge over the outbreak’s possible knock-on effects.
In Australia, health officials said the Chinese women’s national football team was quarantined in the city of Brisbane over concerns it had passed through Wuhan a week ago.
The team will be kept in isolation in a hotel until Wednesday next week. None of the group of 32 players and staff has shown symptoms.
Chartered planes carrying evacuees home to Japan and the United States left Wuhan early Wednesday as other countries planned similar evacuations from areas China has shut down to try to contain the virus. The lockdown of 17 cities has trapped more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.
A plane carrying Americans who had been in Wuhan left for Anchorage, Alaska, where they will be rescreened for the virus. US hospitals are prepared to treat or quarantine people who may be infected. After departing Alaska, the plane is to fly to Ontario, California.
Wuhan is building two hospitals in a matter of days to add 2,500 beds for treatment of patients with the virus.