France, US and Russia on Saturday moved to evacuate their citizens while India is believed to have reached out to Beijing to allow its people stranded in Wuhan to leave the central Chinese city, which is the epicentre of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak that has killed 41 people and infected at least 1,300.
The evacuation plans come as Chinese President Xi Jinping warned on Saturday that situation had become “grave” given the “accelerating spread” of the virus across the country, which has now put as many as 18 cities on lockdown – including Wuhan where policemen were seen turning cars back from city borders.
The increase in the number of fatalities – from 26 on Friday to 41 – was the sharpest single-day spike in deaths due to the previously unseen virus that is believed to have begun spreading late December from a seafood market in Wuhan.
Around 250 Indians are still in Wuhan, people aware of the situation said, adding that hundreds more are believed to have headed back to India in the past two weeks for the Lunar New Year holidays. The remaining Indians in the city mostly comprise students and around 50 working individuals, these people added.
India has requested the Chinese foreign ministry as well as local officials in Wuhan to consider making arrangements for Indians to leave, news agency PTI quoted sources as saying. It is not clear how and when India plans to evacuate its citizens if approval is granted.
The United States was reported to have begun arranging for a charter flight, a Boeing 767 jet that can carry around 230 passengers, to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan on Sunday, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Washington was given approval for the operation from the Chinese foreign ministry, the report added.
Russia too was consulting with China while France was setting up a bus service to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, according to media reports quoting the Russian embassy and the French consulate.
In India, a top adviser of the Prime Minister met senior bureaucrats from across several ministries to review response mechanisms if the contagion spreads to India, while authorities also issued a fresh travel advisory urging people to avoid going to China unless essential.
There are at least 11 people who have been isolated with symptoms similar to an nCoV infection – with dozens more being monitored over phone after they travelled to Chinese cities.
The virus also expanded its footprint as Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday. Late on Friday, Malaysia confirmed three and France reported Europe’s first infection.
Hong Kong also declared an emergency, scrapping celebrations and restricting links to mainland China. Apart from these, positive cases of coronavirus have been reported from South Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore and as far as the US.
Authorities in Wuhan said they will build a second hospital dedicated to coronavirus patients, a day after construction began for a 1,000-bed facility scheduled to be completed within ten days. About 450 military medics have also been deployed to help treat patients in the central city.
Regions far from the epidemic epicentre, such as Beijing, have also started to clamp down on the flow of people. On Saturday, the country’s capital said it would suspend buses in and out of the city, on top of closing tourist attractions and cancelling large-scale events during the Lunar New Year holiday.
“As long as we have steadfast confidence, work together, scientific prevention and cures, and precise policies, we will definitely be able to win the battle,” Chinese President Xi told a meeting of the elite Politburo Standing Committee on Saturday.
The virus has caused global alarm because of its similarity to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).The newly identified strain still has many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases, and shows flu-like symptoms.
Particularly at risk are people who are either very young or old and those with a compromised immunity due to other diseases.