The US government has warned Americans not to travel to China as the death toll from the new coronavirus reached 213 on Friday, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency.
A new state department travel advisory raised the warning for China to the same level as Iraq and Afghanistan. In a notice posted on its website, the department said: “Do not travel to China due to novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.”
The death toll in Hubei, the Chinese province at the center of the epidemic, had risen to 204 and there were 9,692 cases of infection nationally as of Thursday, Chinese health authorities said. A total of 129 cases have been reported in 22 other countries and regions, with no deaths outside China.
International alarm over the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, is driven by its rapid spread and the fact that infectious disease experts cannot yet know how deadly or contagious it is.
An increasing number of airlines have stopped flying to mainland China, including Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, while others have reduced flights.
The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said all air traffic between Italy and China would stop, a more drastic measure than most countries have undertaken, after Italy announced its first confirmed cases in two Chinese tourists.
The US government’s warning on Thursday came as pilots for American Airlines filed a lawsuit seeking an immediate halt to China flights.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots, cited “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus” in a lawsuit filed in Texas, where the airline is based.
A US flight attendant who recently landed from one major Chinese city said a big concern was spreading the virus to families, or being quarantined while on a layover.
“I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I went there,” said the attendant, describing general paranoia on the return flight, with every passenger wearing a mask.
“Now I feel like I’m on a 14-day countdown,” said the attendant, referring to the 14-day incubation period for the virus, during which time Chinese health authorities say a person can be infectious.
Foreign governments continued evacuating their citizens from Hubei and holding them in quarantine.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said the organization “doesn’t recommend – and actually opposes” restrictions on travel or trade with China.
In a news conference in Geneva on Thursday evening, Tedros said the WHO was declaring a global health emergency because it was concerned about the virus spreading to countries that did not have the resources to deal with it.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries. Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” he said.
Lockdown in Wuhan
The virus is believed to have originated late last year in a food market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.
About 60 million people in Hubei province are now living under virtual lockdown. There had been a further 1,220 cases detected in Hubei by end of 30 January, taking the total for the province to close to 6,000, Hubei’s health commission said.
New cases are being reported every day around the world, spurring cuts to travel, outbreaks of anti-China sentiment and a surge in demand for protective face masks.
Medical experts say the rising number of human-to-human transmissions outside China suggests a greater potential for the virus to spread further.
Statistics from China indicate that just over 2% of people infected have died, suggesting that the virus may be less deadly than the coronaviruses behind the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), as well as Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers).
In China, thousands of factory workers on lunar new year holidays may struggle to get back to work next week due to travel restrictions. Major companies such as Google and Ikea have closed China operations.
Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary, suggested on Thursday that the viral outbreak in China might offer an unexpected benefit for the US economy: it could encourage American manufacturers in China to return to the United States.
“I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America. Some to US, probably some to Mexico as well,” Ross told Fox Business Network.