BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The United States and Japan flew nationals out of China’s virus epicenter on Wednesday and some big-name airlines suspended flights as deaths leapt to 133 and a senior economist predicted a major impact on growth.
Beijing’s plans to slay the “devil” coronavirus may have won the trust of the World Health Organization (WHO), but confirmation of another 1,459 cases – taking the total to 5,974 in China – only fueled global public alarm.
Deaths from the flu-like virus also rose by 27 to 133.
Almost all have been in the central province of Hubei, the capital of which is Wuhan, where the virus emerged last month in a live wild animal market.
The situation remained “grim and complex”, Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged.
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In many Chinese cities, streets were largely deserted with the few who ventured out wearing masks. Starbucks coffee shops required people to have temperatures taken and masks on.
“It’s my first time here in Asia, I feel very unlucky,” said Brazilian tourist Amanda Lee, 23, cutting short a trip. “I couldn’t even see the places I wanted, like the Great Wall.”
There was relief, however, among evacuees from Hubei province, home to about 60 million people and under virtual lockdown. “I was extremely worried that I was stuck there,” said Takeo Aoyama, who arrived in Tokyo on a chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese out of Wuhan.
The United States flew about 210 citizens out of Wuhan, to be screened several times on arrival in California. Britain said it would put 200 citizens on a charter plane on Thursday.
The virus is weighing heavily on the world’s second-biggest economy, with companies cutting corporate travel to China and tourists cancelling trips. Various airlines are cutting flights, from British Airways and Lufthansa to Tanzania’s national carrier that postponed maiden flights.
A government economist said the crisis could cut China’s first quarter growth by one point to 5% or lower as the crisis hits sectors from mining to luxury goods.
Hong Kong stocks took a beating on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year break. Casino and financial stocks led the Hang Seng index 2.5% lower to a seven-month trough.
Regional markets, however, arrested their slide, with stocks in Japan, Australia, South Korea and India steady or firmer and currencies mostly stable.
“In our view, the worst is yet to come,” securities firm Nomura said, warning of a severe, near-term blow to China’s economy.
‘SPREADING AT BREAKNECK SPEED’
But in a potentially major step toward finding a vaccine, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the virus, the first recreated outside China.
The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity said they would share the sample, grown from an infected patient, with the WHO and global laboratories in the hope of hastening immunization and detection.
Australia’s government said it would help some citizens leave and quarantine them on Christmas Island, best known for housing asylum seekers.
The number of cases in China now exceeds its tally of 5,327 infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
While some experts believe the new strain, known as “2019-nCoV”, is not as deadly as SARS, alarm has grown over its rapid spread and many unknown attributes, such as how lethal it is.
“There have been more cases in China, but so far with a lower death rate than the SARS outbreak,” said Michael Head, a health researcher at Britain’s University of Southampton.
“A pandemic is typically called by the World Health Organization after there has been sustained transmission across many countries. Though there have been cases reported in several countries now, we’re not quite at that stage of sustained transmission yet.”
Like other respiratory infections, the new virus is spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes, with an incubation time between one and 14 days.
About 60 cases, but no deaths, have been reported in 15 other countries. In the first known cases in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates diagnosed four members of a Chinese family who arrived from Wuhan with the coronavirus.
Hubei governor Wang Xiaodong said the outbreak in Huanggang city was also severe and it must not be allowed to become a second Wuhan. Companies in the province should not resume work before Feb. 13, he told reporters.
“The most difficult part is to be at home most of the day. It is more safe to stay away from other people,” said Emilia, 28, a research scientist and Russian national in Wuhan.
U.N. children’s agency UNICEF sent six tonnes of masks and protective suits for healthcare workers. “This coronavirus is spreading at a breakneck speed and it is important to put all the necessary resources into halting it,” said executive director Henrietta Fore.
Reporting by Lusha Zhang, Gabriel Crossley, Tony Munroe, Huizhong Wu, Cheng Leng, Judy Hua, Nanlin Fang and Joyce Zhou in Beijing; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont in Paris, Akira Tomoshige in Tokyo, Kate Kelland in London, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie