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Planes of foreigners leave China as coronavirus death toll rises, infection spreads

Several countries have begun moving their citizens out of the Chinese city hardest-hit by an outbreak of a new virus that has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000.

Number of cases inside China surpasses 2003 SARS outbreak

Passengers board buses after arriving at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Calif., on Wednesday. They arrived on an aircraft chartered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate government employees and other Americans from the coronavirus threat in Wuhan, China. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Latest developments:

  • Several countries are assisting citizens who want to leave Wuhan. 
  • Virus has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad.
  • Number of coronavirus cases inside of China has surpassed the 2003 SARS outbreak.
  • WHO is 'very impressed' with Chinese response to outbreak.

Several countries have begun moving their citizens out of the Chinese city hardest-hit by an outbreak of a new virus that has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad.

A Japanese flight carrying 206 evacuees home included four people with coughs and fevers. The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital in separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks.

The Japanese flight was bringing 20,000 face masks and other protective gear, all in short supply as Chinese hospitals treat a growing number of patients. Wuhan is building two hospitals in a matter of days to add 2,500 beds for treatment of patients with the virus.

It wasn't immediately known whether they were infected with the new type of coronavirus that appeared in the central city of Wuhan in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.

China's latest figures cover the previous 24 hours and add 26 to the number of deaths, 25 of which were in the central province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. 

The number of coronavirus cases inside of China has surpassed that of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which at its height saw 5,327 people infected, however, the death toll remains lower. 

Dozens of infections have been confirmed outside mainland China as well, including cases in: Taiwan, Australia, Cambodia, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, the U.S. and Canada. On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates' health ministry said four members of a Chinese family were infected in the first cases announced in the Gulf state, state news agency WAM said. 

A plane evacuating 201 Americans from Wuhan landed arrived Wednesday at a Southern California military base after everyone aboard passed a health screening test in Anchorage, where the aircraft had stopped to refuel.

All the passengers already underwent two health screenings in China and were screened twice more in Anchorage by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They will now undergo three days of monitoring at the military base.

Canada, for its part, is still working on its plans to get Canadians out of the affected area but has secured a plane. Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday that 160 Canadians have requested consular services to date.

An ambulance carrying evacuees from Wuhan arrives at Ebara Hospital in Tokyo Wednesday after the first group of Japanese evacuees returned. (Kyodo News via The Associated Press)

Italy is arranging a flight on Thursday to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, the country's foreign ministry said Wednesday. Around 50 Italians were stranded in the city, which has been largely isolated in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, a ministry official said.

French officials say a military aircraft with a medical team is leaving Wednesday night to evacuate some 200 citizens. The country also announced its fifth confirmed case of the coronavirus on Wednesday.

The United Kingdom's health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC Thursday that British nationals being flown back from Wuhan will be quarantined for two weeks. The U.K. is also warning against "all but essential travel" to mainland China amid the outbreak. 

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said he expects the evacuation of German citizens from China is set to get underway in the next few hours.

Hong Kong's leader said the territory will cut all rail links to the mainland and halve the number of flights to stop the spread of the virus.

WATCH: Hong Kong closes borders as China battle coronavirus:

As China continues to battle a growing coronavirus epidemic, Hong Kong has bowed to pressure and closed its borders to reduce the flow of people coming in from the mainland. 1:59

South Korea also said it will send a plane, and France, Mongolia and other governments also planned evacuations.

China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. The lockdown has trapped more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

The sharp rise in infections recently suggests significant human-to-human spread of the virus, though it could also be explained by expanded monitoring efforts, said Malik Peiris, chair in virology at the University of Hong Kong.

Officials said on Wednesday that the virus outbreak in the neighbouring city of Huanggang city is especially severe, adding the city cannot be allowed to become the second Wuhan.

Governor of Hubei province Wang Xiaodong said during a press briefing that companies in the province should not resume work before the end of Feb 13.

Huanggang, a city of 7.5 million people, has reported five deaths and 324 cases as of end-Tuesday, the second-most in both accounts among the cities in the province behind Wuhan. 

WHO's 'highest priority'

Experts worry the new virus may spread more easily than originally thought, or may have mutated into a form that does so. It is from the coronavirus family, which also can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS, which both emerged in the past two decades and are thought to have come from animals.

The new virus causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia. It is thought to have spread to people from wild animals sold at a Wuhan market. China on Sunday temporarily banned trade in wild animals and urged people to stop eating meat from them.

WHO praised China on Wednesday for its efforts to tackle the outbreak and expressed optimism that the transmission could be halted.

"We are at an important juncture in this event. We believe these chains of transmission can still be interrupted," said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies Program who accompanied the body's chief on a trip to China this week.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, centre, removes his face mask to speak to journalists at the Suvarnabhumi International airport in Bangkok on Wednesday. (The Associated Press)

On Tuesday, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss the latest information on the outbreak and reiterate their commitment to bringing it under control, WHO said in a news release.

"The National Health Commission presented China's strong public health capacities and resources to respond and manage respiratory disease outbreaks," the release said.

It said discussions focused on ways to cooperate to contain the virus in Wuhan and other cities and provinces and studies that could contribute to the development of medical countermeasures such as vaccines and treatments. Other WHO experts will visit China as soon as possible, it said.

"Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO's highest priority," Tedros said.

The source of the virus and the full extent of its spread are still unknown. However, WHO said most cases reported to date "have been milder, with around 20 per cent of those infected experiencing severe illness."

With files from Reuters

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