Beijing talks Thailand out of evacuating Wuhan as virus transmissions reported outside China

Medical workers tend to an infected patient in Wuhan. Photo: Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University/Weibo
Medical workers tend to an infected patient in Wuhan. Photo: Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University/Weibo

Thailand has shelved plans to evacuate its citizens from the Chinese city where a viral outbreak was first detected at Beijing’s urging as confirmed infections in the kingdom rose to 14.

Tana Weskosith of the Foreign Affairs Ministry told reporters that China is confident it can look after the students and workers trapped inside the Wuhan exclusionary zone that has expanded to essentially quarantine at least 50 million people.

“China has absolute restrictions on entry and exit from Wuhan and does not allow anyone to travel in and out in order to strictly control the spread of the coronavirus. Thailand has to strictly comply with such a measure. Therefore, we cannot fly the C-130 plane to pick up our people, but, what we have to do is to rehearse the guidelines and prepare measures to be ready if and when the evacuation plan is allowed by China,” Tana said.

Coronavirus infections in Thailand surge to 14

Somehow those strict measures didn’t stop Japan and the United States from evacuating their citizens. About 200 Japanese evacuees landed safely in Tokyo this morning; the Americans airlifted 240 people.

The Thai response has invited strong criticism and calls for tighter travel restrictions. Five million residents of Wuhan, China, left the city for Chinese New Year travel before travel was cut off, according to that city’s mayor. The government and military had announced a rescue plan following a viral plea from one of the students trapped there, who said they had insufficient food and wanted to come home.

Thailand leads in the known spread of the virus outside of China, with an additional six cases confirmed late Tuesday afternoon raising the total to 14.

As governments throughout Asia grapple with further limiting travel in light of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, reports have emerged of it being transmitted between people outside of China.

Malaysia and Singapore each confirmed seven coronavirus cases since last night, while cases of person-to-person transmission of the virus outside China have been reported in Japan and Germany.

Though anxiety has spread faster than the virus, emptying store shelves of protective masks, many of those who took ill in the first days have already recovered, with Vietnam and Cambodia reporting patients there as on the mend.

Confirmed infections have climbed to more than 5,000 across China, mainly in Wuhan, the city where it was first detected that’s now inside a growing exclusion zone that has locked down more than 50 million people.

The novel coronavirus has spread to at least 13 other countries outside of China, with Japan confirming more cases yesterday, one of which involved a Japanese bus driver who became infected after driving a group of Chinese tourists. European health officials yesterday confirmed that an afflicted German man was infected by a colleague, according to AFP.

Several countries have begun evacuating residents from the quarantine zone, with more than 200 Japanese airlifted from Wuhan landing in Tokyo this morning.

The United States, France and Australia have also said they are planning evacuations. Australian evacuees will be taken to Christmas Island for quarantine. Thailand announced an evacuation effort but suspended plans after consulting with Chinese officials.

The outbreak does not yet constitute a global health emergency, according to the World Health Organization, which this morning announced a centralized system for compiling infection data.

The SARS-like virus, designated 2019-nCoV, is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. The new virus, which reportedly emerged from a now-shuttered market that sold exotic wildlife such as bats, is believed to have come from animals. China has temporarily suspended all wildlife trade.

The number of confirmed cases in mainland China stands at 5,974 this morning with 132 deaths.

The country is also rushing to build two hospitals in Wuhan to treat coronavirus patients and is expected to complete it this week.

Malaysian health officials today confirmed three more cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infected in the country to seven.

All Chinese nationals, the latest patients include a 4-year-old, a 52-year-old man and a woman linked to previously confirmed cases.

The woman had entered Malaysia’s Johor Bahru from Singapore together with her mother and two sons after her father and husband tested positive for coronavirus in Singapore. The woman initially tested negative while her sons and mother were confirmed to have been infected. The woman then remained in hospital with them.

The country has imposed a ban on Chinese tourists from Wuhan in a bid to contain the spread of the disease.

Cambodia and Vietnam’s first confirmed patients infected with the virus are showing signs of recovery, according to reports.

Cambodia’s health officials reportedly said that the 60-year-old Chinese national Jia Jianhua who had flown in from Wuhan with three family members is recovering, without confirming when they will be discharged from the hospital. All four remain quarantined.

One of two patients in Vietnam is also showing signs of recovery after multiple tests turn up negative. The 28-year-old Chinese man remains in Saigon’s Cho Ray Hospital with his father, 66, the other confirmed patient, who is still receiving treatment.

In Manila, upward of 50 Filipinos expected to be repatriated from the province where Wuhan is located will be quarantined upon arrival for two weeks. Some experts have objected to this measure, saying they should stay in the affected area and quarantine themselves instead.

The Philippines remains free of the coronavirus but is monitoring around 20 patients in six regions.

Meanwhile, Thailand is putting evacuation plans on hold following discussions with Chinese officials.

Deputy permanent secretary Tana Weskosith told reporters yesterday China is confident it can look after Thai nationals trapped in Wuhan.

“China has absolute restrictions on entry and exit from Wuhan and does not allow anyone to travel in and out in order to strictly control the spread of the coronavirus. Thailand has to strictly comply with such a measure. Therefore, we cannot fly the C-130 plane to pick up our people, but, what we have to do is to rehearse the guidelines and prepare measures to be ready if and when the evacuation plan is allowed by China,” The Nation quoted Tana as saying.

Thai authorities had worked on an evacuation plan amid a viral plea from a Thai university student saying she is trapped in Wuhan with insufficient food.

Hong Kong has cut cross-border travel in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus. High-speed trains and ferries that cross the border with China will be suspended from Thursday, chief executive Carrie Lam said.

Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong airlines have announced they would halve the number of flights to mainland China. The former will do so progressively starting tomorrow. Rival Hong Kong airlines said it would cut more than 200 of such flights until Feb. 11.

Hong Kong has eight confirmed cases so far, all of which are being treated at the Princess Margaret Hospital.

Hundreds of Indonesian students are currently in Hubei province, including Wuhan, but the Indonesian foreign ministry said it will not be evacuating them.

“Everything comes down to the confirmation from the Chinese side that evacuation can be done,” spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah was quoted by the South China Morning Post.

“While we are still anticipating that [ideal] condition, what the government has done is to ensure our citizens there, our students, still get a lot of attention.”

As of Wednesday, the country has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Additional reporting Chayanit Itthipongmaetee

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