China virus death toll rises to 170, transmission a concern

BEIJING (AP) - The death toll has risen to 170 in the new virus outbreak in China as foreign evacuees from the worst-hit region begin returning home under close observation.

World health officials expressed “great concern” that the disease is starting to spread between people outside of China.

The 195 Americans evacuated from Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak originated, are undergoing three days of testing and monitoring at a Southern California military base to make sure they do not show signs of the virus.

A group of 210 Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed Thursday at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on a second government chartered flight. Three among an earlier batch of evacuees tested positive.

France, New Zealand, Australia and others are also pulling out their citizens.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. Scientists say there are still many critical questions to be answered about, including just how transmissible and severe the virus is. More than 50 cases have been reported outside China.

China cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities to try to contain the outbreak. Villages on the outskirts of Beijing are closing themselves off to outsiders to ward against infection.

Roads are being blocked by piles of earth or other types of barricades, red banners are tied overhead and villagers wearing masks and red armbands stand guard to prevent outsiders and their vehicles from entering. Those wishing to visit have to prove their presence is necessary and testify that they have not traveled to Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, or other stricken areas.

A village committee member says, “If we let in one (infected) person, the whole village would be ruined.”

U.S. health officials insisted Tuesday the virus’ risk to Americans is very low. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that worry about the virus should not impact Americans’ day-to-day lives.

So far there are five confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. and no sign those patients have spread the illness to those around them. But as a precaution, the U.S. is beefing up its checks on returning international travelers beyond the five airports initially announced, to encompass 20 entry points.

The United Arab Emirates confirmed on Wednesday the first four cases of the new virus in the Mideast. The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency, citing the Health and Prevention Ministry, said the cases came from “members of a family arriving from the Chinese city of Wuhan.” It did not say where those infected were being treated or explain how or when the family traveled from Wuhan to the UAE.

British Airways halted all flights to China and American Airlines suspended Los Angeles flights to and from Shanghai and Beijing as efforts to contain the virus intensify. Several other airlines including Finnair, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and Singapore-based Jetstar Asia are reducing the number of flights to the country.

British Airways took the measure a day after Britain’s Foreign Office updated its travel advice on China, warning against “all but essential travel” to the mainland, not including Hong Kong and Macao.

American cited plunging travel demand to the region from the West Coast.

Australia and New Zealand will work together to evacuate their isolated and vulnerable citizens from the Hubei province. The countries have also ratcheted up their travel advice for China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday could not say how many or how soon citizens would be flown out by Qantas. The departures would be arranged in consultation with China.

The citizens would be sent for 14 days to a quarantine center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which has been used to hold asylum seekers and foreign criminals facing deportation.

Australian health officials say the Chinese women’s national soccer team is being quarantined in Brisbane city over concerns about the possible spread of the coronavirus. Queensland state Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young says 32 people — including players and staff — traveled through Wuhan a week ago.

The team will be kept in isolation in a Brisbane hotel until Wednesday next week. The group arrived in Brisbane on a flight from Shanghai on Tuesday before border officials placed them in isolation. They are travelling with a team doctor and none has shown symptoms.

Meanwhile, Australia has advised its citizens to reconsider their need to travel to China and not to travel to Hubei. New Zealand’s government advised people to avoid all non-essential travel to China due to the viral outbreak.

International sports events including qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics are being affected by the spread of the virus. The international ski federation on Wednesday canceled the first World Cup races scheduled for testing the mountain venue for alpine skiing at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. A men’s downhill had been scheduled for Feb. 15 at Yanqing to start a two-race weekend.

Games in China next week in field hockey’s women’s Pro League have been postponed by the sport’s governing body. Olympic qualifying events scheduled in China in February in soccer, basketball and boxing have been moved elsewhere. China is also due to host the indoor athletics world championships in March in Nanjing.

Shares are mostly higher in Asia after a rebound on Wall Street that reversed most losses from a sell-off the day before. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 2.8% after reopening Wednesday from Lunar New Year holidays, while other Chinese markets remained closed. Shares rose in Tokyo, Seoul, Sydney and Mumbai.

The U.S. rally overnight snapped a two-day skid driven by fears that the spread of the coronavirus could snag global economic growth.

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