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Wuhan virus: China quarantines city, flights cancelled

AFP, Reuters /Beijing
Filed on January 23, 2020
China, Wuhan, Sars, flights, Scoot, virus outbreak, coronavirus, China virus

More than 570 people have been infected with the virus across China.

China banned trains and planes from leaving a major city at the centre of a virus outbreak on Thursday, seeking to seal off its 11 million people to contain the contagious disease that has claimed 17 lives, infected hundreds and spread to other countries.

Authorities in Wuhan, a major transport hub, also suspended public buses and subways, and said residents should not leave "without a special reason".

Singapore's Scoot cancels flight

Singapore Airlines' budget carrier Scoot cancelled its daily flight to China's central city of Wuhan, online flight information showed, after authorities locked down the centre of a fast-spreading virus outbreak.

The airline did not immediately comment on the cancellation of the 6.55pm (1055 GMT) flight displayed on the website of Singapore's Changi airport.

Taiwan's China Airlines suspends flights

Taiwan's China Airlines  said it would suspend flights to Wuhan from Jan. 23 to Feb. 29, after the city shut its airport as part of moves to tackle a new flu-like virus.

China Airlines' flights from Taipei leave from the city's main Taoyuan international airport. Its sister carrier Mandarin Airlines is also cancelling flights from Taipei's smaller Songshan airport to Wuhan.

The airline said it would assist passengers who want to return to Wuhan to opt for other nearby destinations.

Last flight from Wuhan: 'Everyone was wearing masks'

One of the last flights out of Wuhan was met by biosecurity officials as it landed in Australia on Thursday, as a global effort to contain the outbreak ramps up.

Mask-wearing passengers said they were questioned by health officials who briefed them on the symptoms of the novel coronavirus and handed out leaflets explaining how to respond if they noticed symptoms of the contagious disease.

"They suggested (that) everyone wear their masks, and actually everyone (already) wear their masks ... even the flight crew," said Kevin Ouyang, a 40-year-old father of two who was returning to his Sydney home after a business trip to China.

Australia's chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said no ill passengers had been found on the flight, which left Wuhan shortly before Chinese authorities placed the city under quarantine and barred all departing aircraft.

But Murphy added during a press conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison that because of its incubation period travellers from Wuhan would need to continue monitoring themselves for flu-like symptoms.

"We need to contact a hospital," a woman passenger, who didn't give her name, explained when asked what she was told to do if symptoms arise.

Passengers who spoke with reporters at the airport seemed largely unfazed by the crisis, and the media attention.

"I feel everything was normal on the flight," one woman said.

More than 570 people infected

More than 570 people have been infected with the virus across China - with most cases found in Wuhan, where a seafood market that illegally sold wild animals has been identified as the epicentre of the outbreak.

The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Like Sars, it can be passed among people through the respiratory tract.

The first case of the new virus was confirmed on December 31, and it has since been detected in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to declare a global health emergency - a rare instrument used only for the worst outbreaks.

The emergency committee will meet again on Thursday, after its chair, Didier Houssin, said the experts were split over declaring a public health emergency.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he needed "more information" but he also praised China's "very, very strong measures" to contain the outbreak.

"By having a strong action not only will they control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimise the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally," Tedros said when asked about Wuhan's transport shutdown.

With hundreds of millions of people travelling across China this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, the National Health Commission announced on Wednesday measures to curb the disease nationwide - including sterilisation and ventilation at airports and bus stations, as well as inside planes and trains.

Wuhan's special anti-virus command centre said the quarantine measures, which came into effect at 0200 GMT, were meant to "effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people's health and safety," according to state media.

A long line of cars headed out of the city on Thursday, with officials checking the temperatures of some drivers, according to images from Chinese media outlet The Paper.

Police wearing masks patrolled Wuhan's Hankou train station before the suspension came into effect.

While departures were banned, trains and planes were still heading into the city.

Wang Biao, 28, who works in the advertising industry, was heading to Wuhan to transfer there to another train to Jingzhou, another city in Hubei province.

"My family did ask if I would consider not coming home for the Lunar New Year, but I had already bought tickets," Wang, who was wearing a mask, gloves and a hat as protection, told AFP on the train.

The city's tourism and culture department cancelled all group tours until February 8, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The city had already warned people to avoid entering or leaving Wuhan. Large public events for the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts Friday, were cancelled.

Authorities in Wuhan also made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places, according to state media.

"Those who disregard the warning will be punished according to relevant laws and regulations," the city government warned, according to Xinhua.

The hashtag "Wuhan is sealed off" was trending on China's Twitter-like Weibo, with nearly 460 million views.

Animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak, with Chinese health officials saying that the virus originated from the market where wild animals were illegally sold.

But the WHO has confirmed that the virus can be passed between people, at least those in close contact, and Chinese health officials said it could mutate and spread further.

"There are many unknowns to address in this event including clinical severity and the true extent and nature of disease transmission," said Michael Ryan, head of the WHO's health emergencies programme.

Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen - known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Passengers are facing screening measures at five US airports and a host of transport hubs across Asia.

European airports from London to Moscow have also stepped up checks and Nigeria, which has many citizens working in China, said it would start checks at entry points.

Chinese authorities on Thursday reported dozens of new infections, bringing the confirmed total to 571. About 5,000 people remain under medical observation.

WHO chief Tedros said there was "stability" for the moment.

"We don't see any significant variation but at the same time we also believe that we have to be cautious," he said.

Tedros also praised China's openness about the outbreak as "commendable".

But a senior US State Department official said Washington was "still concerned" about transparency in the Chinese government.

During the SARS epidemic, the Chinese government took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts access to southern Guangdong province, where it originated.

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