Wuhan virus: US and others tighten curbs on travel to China; death toll hits 213

People wear medical face masks on the streets of Chinatown in New York, on Jan 29, 2020.
People wear medical face masks on the streets of Chinatown in New York, on Jan 29, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (REUTERS) - The United States and other countries tightened travel curbs on Friday (Jan 31) and businesses said they were facing supply problems because of the coronavirus in China, a day after the World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency.

With the death toll rising to 213, all of them in China, the United States warned Americans not to travel to the Asian country, where the outbreak first appeared in Wuhan, capital of the central Hubei province.

Japan advised citizens to put off non-urgent travel to China, Iran's health minister urged a ban on all travellers from China and Britain reported its first two cases of the virus.

Singapore said it was suspending entry to travellers with a recent history of travel to China and suspending visas for Chinese passport holders. The ban will also apply to those transiting Singapore, a major travel hub.

Italy's government decided to declare a state of emergency and stopped all air traffic with China after announcing its first cases, in two Chinese tourists.

Stock markets steadied slightly after the WHO praised China's efforts to contain the virus, following a tumble the previous day over a rising toll on the world's second-biggest economy and its knock-on effect worldwide.

The outbreak could "reverberate globally", hitting supply chains, Moody's said.

Hyundai Motor said it planned to halt South Korean production of a sport utility vehicle this weekend to cope with a supply disruption caused by the outbreak. Sangyong Motor said it would idle its plant in the South Korean city of Pyeongtaek from Feb 4 to Feb 12 for the same reason.

Home appliance maker Electrolux issued a similar warning. French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen said its three plants in Wuhan will remain closed until Feb. 14.

"Do not travel to China due to novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan," the US State Department said on its website, raising the warning for China to the same level as Afghanistan and Iraq.

China has taken "the most comprehensive and rigorous prevention and control measures", its foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in response to the WHO declaration. Hubei is in virtual lockdown.

"We have full confidence and capability to win this fight," she said in a statement.

 
 
 

But a jump in infections in two cities flanking Wuhan was fuelling fear that new hot spots were emerging. And people were leaving and entering Hubei by foot over a bridge spanning the Yangtze river, a Reuters witness said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had commended China for its efforts and said the WHO was not recommending curbs on travel or trade with Beijing. A WHO spokesman said keeping borders open prevented illegal or unofficial border crossings.

The number of confirmed cases in China has risen beyond 9,800, Beijing's envoy to the United Nations in Vienna said.

China's health ministry said there were 15,238 suspected cases in China at the end of Thursday.

Some 131 cases have been reported in 23 other countries and regions.

The WHO has reported at least eight instances of human-to-human transmission in four countries: the United States, Germany, Japan and Vietnam. Thailand said on Friday it too had a case of human-to-human transmission.

UNLOCKING SECRETS

Some airlines have stopped flying to mainland China, including Air France KLM, British Airways, Germany's Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic. Others have cut flights.

Japan's ANA Holdings said it may consider suspending China flights, media reported, after the airline said bookings for February flights leaving China had halved.

Several foreign governments evacuating citizens from Hubei are holding them in quarantine for a 14-day incubation period.

A plane carrying Britons and other Europeans left Wuhan on Friday, Britain's embassy said.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country's National Health Service was "extremely well prepared" to deal with the outbreak.

 
 
 

Japan, with 14 confirmed cases, has sent three flights to bring citizens home. The first of four planned flights taking South Koreans home landed on Friday.

China's statistics show just over 2 per cent of infected people have died, suggesting that the virus is less deadly than the 2002-2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

But economists fear its impact could be bigger than Sars, which killed about 800 people at an estimated cost of US$33 billion (S$45 billion) to the global economy, since China's share of the world economy is now far greater.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, hit by sometimes violent anti-China unrest for months, rejected calls from a medical union to close the border with the mainland.

With new cases being reported abroad, anti-China sentiment is emerging in some places and manufacturers are scrambling to meet demand for protective masks.

But in good news for movie fans as cinema attendance plummets across China, martial arts film Enter The Fat Dragon will premiere via video streaming on Saturday, its makers said, after dropping plans for a theatre debut.