Coronavirus: European Union staff told to delay travel to China

SCMP Reporters

The number of confirmed cases of the rapidly spreading coronavirus infection in mainland China has reached 6,061, health authorities said on Wednesday – a total surpassing the cases China had in the 2002-03 Sars epidemic that killed almost 800 people worldwide.

The death toll from the new coronavirus had climbed to 132, they announced, with 840 newly confirmed cases in Hubei province, where the outbreak was discovered in the provincial capital Wuhan. It came as Germany, Taiwan and Vietnam reported infections caused by human-to-human transmission.

EU asks staff to delay travel to China

The European Commission is advising its staff to delay “non-essential” travel to China, the top official in charge of crisis management said on Wednesday.

The advice concerns only European Union staff, as travel bans and recommendations to citizens are issued by national authorities of the bloc’s 28 states rather than the EU.

Commission officials and EU diplomats had been advised “to postpone or suspend all non-essential travel to China”, crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic said, adding that EU staff in China were also recommended not to return to the EU at this stage.

Foreigners infected inside China

At least three foreigners – two from Australia and one from Pakistan – have contracted the coronavirus while in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, according to provincial authorities.

Guangdong health commission deputy head Chen Zhusheng said on Wednesday that all three were in a stable condition but it was not known how they contracted the virus.

Chen did not give details of the Australians, but said the Pakistani was a student studying in Wuhan. The student arrived in Shenzhen on January 21 and Guangzhou three days later, before showing symptoms.

“We are conducting an epidemiological investigation in cooperation with colleagues from Wuhan, to research and assess [the situation]. We don’t know how they got infected, ” he said.

Pakistan’s special assistant to the prime minister on health Zafar Mirza said four Pakistani students in China had contracted the coronavirus.

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He said a large proportion of the Pakistanis living in China were students, more than 500 of whom were based in Wuhan.

“Four students have been confirmed to have the coronavirus. Their condition is better now,” Lahore-based The Nation newspaper quoted him as saying.

Germany is planning a special military flight in the coming days to evacuate healthy German citizens from the area around Wuhan.

Events cancelled

A gathering next month of regional leaders from Britain and China has been cancelled because of the outbreak.

Midlands Engine – a government initiative for British economic growth – was expected to host the event in Birmingham from February 17.

“This decision has been taken following extensive discussions and consultation with government departments in [Britain] and China, in light of events unfolding with respect to the coronavirus,” an Midlands Engine spokesman said.

“Our thoughts and sympathy are with close friends and valued colleagues in China who are affected by this. Discussions are under way to reschedule the summit.”

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The cancellation adds to the list of international sporting events affected by the outbreak. Skiing World Cup races in Yanqing have been cancelled and Olympic women’s football in Australia is in doubt over concerns about athletes’ safety.

Badminton, tennis and basketball were among other sports whose governing bodies were rearranging events, weighing possible changes or monitoring the implications of the outbreak.

Race for a vaccine

China has handed over the coronavirus genome to Russia as efforts to develop a vaccine continued, Russian state media reported on Wednesday.

The United States said on Tuesday that it was developing a vaccine, but that it would take three months to start initial trials and three further months to gather data.

In Hong Kong, infectious diseases expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said on Tuesday that the city’s researchers had developed a vaccine but it would take months to test on animals and at least another year to conduct trials on humans before it could be cleared for use.

Scientists in Melbourne, Australia, said on Wednesday that they had grown the coronavirus from a patient sample, which they said could prove a “game-changer” in combating the outbreak. It was the first time the virus had been grown in cell culture outside China.

“Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis – however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods,” Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Dr Julian Druce said. “It will be a game-changer for diagnosis.”

Wuhan wariness

Around China, as panic about the outbreak spread, resentment aimed at people from Wuhan was also on the rise.

Provincial authorities around the country have stepped up screening for arrivals from Wuhan. In the coastal Shandong province, more than 69,000 people from Wuhan were detected between January 6 and 27. In Jinan, the provincial capital, 4,266 people from Wuhan were placed under medical observation.

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Pictures circulating on mainland social media have shown people building roadblocks to prevent outsiders entering their village or area. The police have said they would crack down on unauthorised roadblocks.

Lists of hotels willing to accept Wuhan people have also been circulating online. There are only a handful of such hotels in some cities, with only two, for example, listed in Kunming, a city with a population of 6.6 million in China’s southwest.

Ma Guoqiang, the Communist Party chief in Wuhan, has urged against discrimination, saying that he hoped people in other provinces would be tolerant of those from Wuhan, given that “everyone may face a similar situation”.

Tibet autonomous region – the only Chinese administrative region yet to confirm any cases of infection – has released details of its first suspected case. The patient, a 34-year-old man from Suizhou city in Hubei, arrived in Lhasa, Tibet, by train from Wuhan on Friday. His samples have been sent to the CDC for confirmation and his condition was stable.

The number of deaths from the new coronavirus continues to grow, with more fatalities expected to be reported. Most patients who have died were older than 60 and had pre-existing conditions, according to reports from local authorities.

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Human transmission spreads

Concerns about human-to-human transmission grew on Wednesday after more such cases were reported outside mainland China.

At least one of the four people in Bavaria in southern Germany confirmed on Monday as their country’s first coronavirus cases had fallen ill after a colleague from China visited their workplace, DPA news agency reported. The Chinese colleague, a woman from Shanghai, began experiencing symptoms during her flight home from Germany on Thursday, Bavarian authorities said.

Before her trip to Germany, the Chinese woman had received a visit from her parents, who come from the Wuhan region.

The health ministry in Taiwan said a 50-year-old man on the island had been infected without travelling to mainland China. He is the husband of an infected patient who had been to the mainland.

In Vietnam, a 27-year-old man, whose father had returned to Hanoi from Wuhan, developed a dry cough and fever, and later tested positive for the coronavirus, The New England Journal of Medicine reported on Wednesday.

The coronavirus can be passed between humans through close contact, Chinese medical experts have said.

‘Yet to peak’

Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s top respiratory diseases experts, said on Tuesday that the outbreak had yet to reach its peak and that he expected it to do so within a week to 10 days, adding that there should be “no massive increase afterwards”.

However, University of Hong Kong academics have predicted that the number of infections in five mainland megacities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing – will peak between late April and early May.

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Gao Fu, director of the China Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday night that he believed prevention and control measures were working, saying the number of suspected cases was decreasing.

He said most experts expected that “the situation will turn better [around] the Lantern Festival”, on February 8.

“I am more optimistic [than them]; my personal assessment is [things will be better] earlier than this,” Gao said. “But people should not lower their prevention and control measures. We should keep up our measures and the virus will go down.”

The illness, with pneumonia-like symptoms, has spread rapidly, with reports of cases in at least 15 countries outside China, including other parts of Asia, North America, Australia and Europe.

The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday confirmed the first cases in the Middle East.

BA suspends China flights

British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect, following advice from Britain’s Foreign Office to avoid all but essential travel.

“The safety of our customers and crew is always our priority,” it said in a statement, confirming the suspension after earlier halting sales of tickets for flights from London to Shanghai and Beijing. The airline flies to China twice a day.

Indonesia’s Lion Air, Southeast Asia’s biggest carrier by fleet size, is halting all of its flights to and from China because of the coronavirus, a company spokesman said on Wednesday.

United Airlines, the largest US carrier operating into mainland China, earlier cut 24 of its flights to the mainland and Hong Kong until February 8. The Chicago-headquartered airline, which flies to China and Hong Kong about 12 times a day, cited “a significant decline in the demand for travel to China”.

More airlines and countries were poised to take similar action, with reports suggesting that the White House was considering stopping all flights between the US and China.

Britain, South Korea offer help

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab discussed the coronavirus in a telephone call on Tuesday, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

According to the ministry’s statement, Raab commended China’s measures to counter the outbreak, and said Britain was “willing to strengthen coordination and cooperation with China, and would try its best to supply China with medical materials in need”.

The British government plans to evacuate its nationals from Hubei and fly them to Britain on Thursday.

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Other countries including South Korea, Germany, Spain and India were considering evacuations of their citizens stranded in Wuhan, which has been subject to a travel ban by Chinese authorities since Thursday. Japan and the United States sent charter planes to Wuhan on Tuesday.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha pledged to donate medical supplies to help combat the virus during a phone call with Wang on Tuesday, according to Beijing.

“Neighbours facing difficulties should support and help one another,” Kang told Wang during the call, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. It said Kang promised her country’s cooperation to curb the disease, and Wang vowed to help ensure the health and safety of all foreigners in China.

South Korea has reported four confirmed cases of the disease, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Apple responds

Apple has begun checking employees’ temperatures and deep-cleaning its stores, closing at least one and reducing the operating hours of others, Bloomberg reported.

The company, which has most of its hardware made in China, last week began limiting travel in China by its staff. Factories will remain closed until February 10, rather than reopening as originally planned at the end of January following Lunar New Year.

Facebook began restricting employee travel to China from Monday, while Starbucks has closed more than half of its coffee shops in mainland China.

Reporting by Cissy Zhou, William Zheng, Danny Lee, Teddy Ng, Guo Rui, Keegan Elmer and Agencies

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