Japan and the United States on Wednesday geared up to airlift hundreds of their citizens from ground zero of China’s deadly virus epidemic, which has so far claimed more than 100 lives.
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 evacuate their nationals.
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.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a meeting with World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing — he called the epidemic a “demon”
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 4,500 people in China and dozens more elsewhere.
Japan sent a first plane to collect its citizens from Wuhan late Tuesday. The aircraft was due back in Tokyo on Wednesday morning.
Around 200 people are expected to be on board the first flight, out of around 650 Japanese nationals in the area who have said they want to be repatriated.
“We’ll continue to take every possible measure to bring home all people hoping to come back to Japan,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers on Tuesday, according to Jiji Press.
Officials will be aboard the plane to monitor passengers during the return flight, but there are no plans to isolate those arriving from Wuhan.
“We will carry out a quarantine on board on their way back,” a Japanese health ministry official told AFP.
– Nations ramp up response –
An American charter flight is also due to leave the city on Wednesday bound for an airport in the Los Angeles area.
The plane will carry staffers from the local US consulate as well as some American citizens, who will be asked to reimburse the cost of their flights.
“These travelers will be carefully screened and monitored to protect their health, as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans,” State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said.
Alaska’s department of transportation said earlier this week the flight would stop to refuel in the US state and carry 240 Americans.
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.
The US and several other countries have urged their citizens to “reconsider” all travel to China.
– ‘Serious struggle’ –
Many streets in Beijing are nearly empty amid fears over the coronavirus epidemic — with the death toll soaring above 100, China and foreign governments are stepping up measures to try to contain it
Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country was waging a “serious struggle” against the “demon” epidemic 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.
Some experts have praised Beijing for being more reactive and open about this virus compared to its handling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2002-2003.
But others say local cadres 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 — doubling to more than 4,500 in the 24 hours to Tuesday.
The United States said Tuesday it was working on a vaccine — but that it would take months to develop.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called on Beijing to show “more cooperation and transparency,” saying the US had offered its help three times — so far without success.