The death toll from a new coronavirus in China rose sharply to 132 on Jan. 24 with nearly 1,500 new cases, as Japan said it flew citizens out of Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus.
Several countries are trying to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. A U.S. charter plane departed Wuhan on Jan. 24, said a U.S. official, but it was unclear who was onboard.
U.S. officials said the White House was weighing whether to suspend flights to the country in a drastic measure to control the spread of the disease.
“All options for dealing with infectious disease spread have to be on the table, including travel restrictions,” said U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar.
The White House is holding daily meetings on the outbreak and monitoring China-U.S. flights as a likely source of infections, sources briefed on the matter said, though it had decided against suspending air traffic for the time being.
A senior Trump administration official said airlines had not been asked to suspend flights, after CNBC reported that the White House had told airline executives it was considering such as move.
Fears of the spreading virus have already pushed airlines around the world to reduce flights to China and global companies to restrict employee travel to the country, while sectors from mining to luxury goods have been shaken by concerns for global growth in the event of a worst-case pandemic.
China’s National Health Commission said the total number of deaths from the flu-like virus rose by 26 on Jan. 28 to 132, almost all in Hubei province which is under virtual lockdown, while the number of confirmed cases rose by 1,459 to a total of 5,974.
The case number in China now exceeds the 5,327 who were infected in the country with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus which killed about 800 people around the world in 2002-2003.
While some experts believe the new strain is not as deadly as SARS, it has created alarm because it is spreading quickly and there are still important unknowns surrounding it, such as its lethality and whether it is infectious before symptoms show.
A chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Jan. 29, with additional flights planned.
A U.S. government official who declined to be identified told Reuters a U.S. charter plane had departed from Wuhan earlier, also on Jan. 29, without elaborating on the number of passengers on board.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing earlier said a chartered plane would pick up its consular staff and some private U.S. citizens on the same day.
Australia said it would help some citizens leave Hubei and quarantine them on Christmas Island, a remote speck in the Indian Ocean best known for housing asylum seekers.
New cases were reported around the world including Germany, where four people from the same company were infected in one of the first cases of person-to-person transmission outside China.
The German cases raise concerns about the human-to-human spread of the virus, which can be transmitted in droplets from coughs and sneezes and has an incubation period of up to 14 days.
Wuhan is racing to build two dedicated hospitals to treat coronavirus patients, with the first 1,000-bed facility to be completed on Feb 3. The capacity of the second will be expanded from 1,300 to 1,600 beds, the official People’s Daily reported on Jan. 29.
Scientists grow virus
Known as “2019-nCoV”, the newly identified coronavirus emerged late last year in Wuhan, a major transportation hub and capital of central Hubei province with a population of 11 million people.
While China has since moved to lock down most of Hubei, with a population around the same as Italy, the virus has still spread to more than a dozen countries from France to the United States.
The epidemic broke out on the eve of China’s Lunar New Year holiday, a time when millions of Chinese travel abroad and at home. Many of those flights have now been cancelled, and airports around the world are screening passengers from China for signs of infection.
In a major step towards controlling the global spread of the disease, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside of China.
The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they would share the sample, grown from an infected patient, with the World Health Organization and laboratories around the world.
“Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities,” the Doherty Institute’s virus identification laboratory head, Julian Druce, said.