by Sébastien Ricci
The US and Japan airlifted hundreds of their nationals from the centre of China’s new virus epidemic on Wednesday, as the number of those killed by the disease rose sharply to 132.
More than 50 million people have been locked down in and around Wuhan, the central industrial city where the outbreak first began, in a bid by authorities to stop an infection that has since spread to more than 15 countries.
Thousands of foreigners are among those effectively trapped in the area, and numerous countries are devising plans to get their nationals out.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called the virus a “demon” during talks on Tuesday with the head of the World Health Organization in Beijing, and pledged a “timely” release of updates about the crisis.
But the United States questioned Beijing’s transparency and urged the country to show “more cooperation” amid mounting global fears about a novel coronavirus that has infected more than 5,300 people in China and dozens more elsewhere.
Figures from Hubei province on Wednesday morning showed the number of cases in the city had soared by over 800 in the past 24 hours, with another 25 deaths confirmed at the epicentre of the contagion.
A further death was reported outside Hubei, taking the nationwide death toll to 132. The number of confirmed cases across the country stood at nearly 6,000.
As concern about the outbreak continued to mount, a plane carrying around 200 Japanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan landed in Tokyo on Wednesday morning.
Medical professionals on board the flight were expected to carry out health checks before the passengers could disembark but there were no plans to quarantine them.
Around 650 Japanese nationals in the Wuhan area had said they wanted to be repatriated and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo would take “every possible measure” to bring them home.
A US charter flight also left the city on Wednesday with some two hundred American citizens onboard including staffers from the local US consulate.
“These travellers will be carefully screened and monitored to protect their health, as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
The European Union will fly its citizens out aboard two French planes this week, and South Korea was due to do the same. Several other countries were assessing their options.
Several countries, most recently Australia, have urged their citizens to “reconsider” all travel to China.
Xi said his country was waging a “serious struggle” against the epidemic, speaking during talks with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Tuesday.
China has extended its Lunar New Year holiday to keep people indoors as much as possible and suspended a wide range of train services.
Following the Xi-Tedros talks, the WHO said the two sides had agreed to send international experts to China “as soon as possible… to guide global response efforts”.
“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” Tedros said.
Until Tuesday, all reported cases in more than a dozen countries had involved people who had been in or around Wuhan, but Japan and Germany have reported the first human-to-human infections outside China.
Germany now has four confirmed cases, all of them employees at a Bavarian firm recently visited by a Chinese colleague, health officials said.
Some experts have praised Beijing for being more reactive and open about the new virus compared to its handling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2002-2003.
But others say local officials had earlier been more focused on projecting stability than responding to the outbreak when it began to spread earlier this month.
Since then, the number of cases has soared.
The United States has said it is working on a vaccine, but that would take months to develop.
Scientists in Australia meanwhile said they had grown the virus from a patient sample in a move that they said would provide international laboratories with crucial information to help combat the virus.