The death toll from a new coronavirus in China rose sharply to 132 on Wednesday with nearly 1,500 new cases, heaping pressure on Beijing to control the disease as US officials said the White House was weighing whether to suspend flights to the country.
The White House is holding daily meetings on the outbreak and monitoring China-US flights as a likely source of infections, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters, though it had decided against suspending air traffic.
A senior Trump administration official said the administration had not asked airlines to suspend flights, after CNBC reported that the White House had told airline executives it was considering such as drastic 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 on Wednesday said the total number of deaths from the flu-like virus rose by 26 on Tuesday 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.
Several countries are trying to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, the city in Hubei at the centre of the epidemic. A US government official who declined to be identified told Reuters a US charter plane had departed from Wuhan earlier on Wednesday, without elaborating on the number of passengers on board.
The US Embassy in Beijing earlier said a chartered plane would pick up its consular staff on Wednesday.
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 after one of them contracted it from a colleague while visiting their workplace in 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.
SCIENTISTS GROW VIRUS
Known as “2019-nCoV”, the newly identified coronavirus 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.
It emerged late last year in Wuhan, a major transportation hub and capital of central Hubei province with a population of 11 million people. China has since moved to lock down most of Hubei, with a population around the same as Italy.
Health authorities believe the virus originated from an animal and have pointed to a seafood market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally.
A team of scientists in Australia said on Wednesday they had developed a lab-grown version of the coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside of China, in a breakthrough that could help combat the global spread of the disease.
The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said they would share the sample, which was 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 in a statement.
The virus has spread to more than a dozen countries and cases such as those in Germany show it is spreading through human contact and not only through travellers from China.
“The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide,” state television quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a meeting with World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Tuesday.
“China will strengthen international cooperation and welcomes the WHO participation in virus prevention… China is confident of winning the battle against the virus.”
Asian stock markets erased earlier gains on Wednesday with Hong Kong shares tumbling to a seven-week low as the surge in new cases fuelled fears about the economic impact of the virus. From France to Japan, governments were organizing evacuations, while Hong Kong – scene of anti-China unrest for months – planned to suspend rail and ferry links with the mainland. United Airlines said it was suspending some flights between the United States and China for a week from February 1 due to a “significant decline in demand.”
The outbreak has forced extensive travel curbs in China, with many local officials trying to identify people who are from or have visited Hubei province, and some communities trying to exclude all outsiders.
Some apartment blocks have forbid delivery drivers from entering, forcing them to drop off their parcels outside building gates.
The European Commission said it would help fund two aircraft to fly EU citizens home, with 250 French nationals leaving on the first flight.