New cases in China surpass SARS epidemic as infections grow abroad; WHO calls for emergency committee meeting

The World Health Organization will reconvene its emergency committee Thursday to determine whether the coronavirus outbreak amounts to a public health emergency of international concern, as the total number of people infected in mainland China surpassed those infected with SARS during the 2002-2003 epidemic.

Experts say a vaccine for the virus is still a long way off. Schools in Beijing have closed indefinitely, and foreigners who have been evacuated from Wuhan, which is at the epicenter of the outbreak, are starting to arrive in their home countries or at temporary screening sites, including via charter flights for Japanese and U.S. citizens.

Many countries are curtailing flights to China, with American Airlines suspending several routes scheduled for February and March. British Airways and German carrier Lufthansa also suspended flights, as did airlines in India and Kazakhstan. Here’s what we know:

● The death toll has risen to 170 in China, with more than 7,7oo confirmed cases of infection as of Thursday morning local time — a day-over-day increase of more than 1,500. Other countries in the region also are reporting more people infected — nearly all of them tourists from China.

● At least 71 cases have been recorded outside of China and the self-ruling island of Taiwan. Person-to-person transmission of the virus has been reported in China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and Germany.

● More than 200 Americans evacuated from Wuhan landed in California on Wednesday. After evacuating 206 people from the virus epicenter Wednesday morning, Japan is readying a second charter flight to bring more of its citizens. Twelve Japanese evacuees were showing symptoms of illness and have been hospitalized.

● The United Arab Emirates has reported four cases — the first in the Middle East — from one family traveling from Wuhan. Hong Kong and Australia both reported two new cases Wednesday.

Some of the world’s largest corporations shuttered operations in China on Wednesday as the worsening coronavirus outbreak renewed concerns about their reliance on Chinese factories and threatened to take a lasting financial toll.

With an official lockdown affecting more than 50 million people, consumer spending on restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues in China has plunged. Many factories have extended their customary closure beyond the end of the Lunar New Year celebration to at least the second week of February.

The enforced inactivity could rattle supply chains for products that are sold in U.S. stores and around the world. Some of Apple’s Chinese suppliers, for example, now are scheduled to remain closed until Feb. 10, chief executive Tim Cook told investors Tuesday, adding that executives are “working on mitigation plans to make up any expected production loss.”

Most analysts remain upbeat, but the economic consequences of the fast-moving virus could snowball if the problem isn’t soon contained, some executives said. China is the world’s second-largest economy and home to factories that produce machinery, computers, furniture and chemicals for customers on every continent. In one sign of mounting worry, a growing number of major airlines have halted or reduced flights to and from China.

The health crisis comes just two weeks after the signing of a U.S.-China trade deal eased the uncertainty that had shrouded Chinese export factories for nearly two years. Across the globe, health officials, corporate executives and central bankers on Wednesday struggled to determine the bottom-line impact of the outbreak.

TOKYO — Three of the Japanese citizens who returned from the virus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan have tested positive for deadly coronavirus, the health ministry said on Thursday, as a second flight from the city landed in Tokyo.

The three, including two who had not shown any symptoms of the disease, were among 206 people brought out on the first flight, which landed at Tokyo’s Haneda airport Wednesday, Kyodo News agency reported.

Among the first batch of returnees, all but two agreed to a test for the virus, Kyodo reported. Those testing positive for the virus will be isolated in a hospital, while most of the rest will be put up in a hotel for two weeks with regular medical checks. Three of the group insisted on returning to their homes, where they will also be visited regularly, officials said.

Another 210 evacuees were brought out on Thursday, with some showing symptoms such as coughs, and the government is already making arrangements for a third flight.

The first group was selected from people living closest to the seafood market in Wuhan thought to be the source of the virus, and also people living close to the airport.

WASHINGTON — The Overwatch League, a competitive e-sports league with international ambitions for its 2020 season, announced in a tweet Wednesday night that its February and March matches scheduled to be held in China have been canceled.

“We have decided to cancel our February and March matches in China in order to protect the health and safety of our players, fans and staff,” the league wrote, noting that more information about the canceled matches would be forthcoming.

The League plans to hold matches in China later this season, according to the tweet, but it did not address when or where the canceled matches would take place. A Feb. 15 match in Shanghai was originally scheduled to be the international debut for the league.

Earlier this week, two of the four teams based in China announced that they would temporarily relocate to South Korea. One team — the only team in the Overwatch League with an entire roster and coaching staff from China — announced that it would remain in China for the start of the season.

Given the unpredictable situation and the potential for future travel restrictions on flights out of China, departing the country now may be the only way to assure that the Chinese teams can participate in any of the league’s upcoming contests. Some countries have started restricting the admittance of passengers on flights and other means of travel originating from China.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are restricting business travel to and from China until further notice,” Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said.

On Wednesday, the e-commerce giant barred non-approved business travel to and from China and will grant approval only for trips that are critical to the company’s business, Anderson said. Amazon also said that those who travel to one of the affected provinces of China should work from home for two weeks upon their return.

Microsoft, meanwhile, noted that the coronavirus outbreak could hamper its Windows operating system business. During its quarterly earnings call Wednesday, finance chief Amy Hood gave a wider-than-usual guidance for the business segment that includes Microsoft’s Windows operating system business, which it sells to PC makers, citing “some of the uncertainty related to the public health situation in China.” The company now expects to generate $10.75 billion to $11.15 billion in fiscal third-quarter revenue from its More Personal Computing segment compared to $10.68 billion in the year-ago period.

Microsoft is also restricting staff travel in China. The company has told employees in the country to work from home and cancel all nonessential business travel until Feb. 9. The company has also advised workers to avoid non-essential travel to China.

WASHINGTON — Amid another day of increasing travel restrictions and international evacuation efforts, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in China and Taiwan continues to rise dramatically.

By 8:30 Thursday morning Beijing time, Chinese health agencies had recorded another 1,658 confirmed cases overnight, bringing the total to 7,736, including eight in the self-ruling island of Taiwan. It’s at least the second consecutive day the number of confirmed cases rose by more than 1,500.

The death toll also increased by 38, to 170, with all but eight of those killed coming from Hubei province, the epicenter of the disease, according to a tally from national and local health commissions. Another 124 people have been successfully treated, the agencies reported.

“Don’t overreact,” said Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, even as he wore a green mask of his own. He added later: “The possibility of getting infected in the street is less than the chance of being in a car accident.”

But many public health officials do recommend face masks in China, especially for people who think they may be sick. The most commonly worn, cheap and disposable masks, known as the surgical masks, will limit — but not eliminate — the chance of inhaling large, infectious particles circulating near the face, said Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that any health-care workers interacting with coronavirus patients or suspected cases wear a stronger kind of mask, known as the N95 respirator, along with other gear such as gloves and eye protectors.

The CDC has not, however, suggested face masks to the general public, noted William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University. Instead, the agency prescribes its usual tips for preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, including thorough hand-washing, avoiding close contact with sick people, staying home when ill and disinfecting often-touched surfaces.

WASHINGTON — New Zealand will not quarantine citizens evacuated from Wuhan on an Australian territory more than nearly 1,000 miles from the mainland, New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters clarified Thursday, following reports that Australia and New Zealand would both keep evacuees in a detention center on Christmas Island.

Leaders from Australia and New Zealand said this week that they were working together to evacuate citizens currently in Wuhan, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the island’s detention center would be temporarily used as a quarantine for Australian evacuees. But Peters said in an interview with Radio New Zealand on Wednesday that he is “looking at the quarantine options within New Zealand already.”

Discussing the evacuation Tuesday, Morrison said that they are planning “assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province.”

A Sri Lankan family of four who are facing deportation from Australia are currently the only detainees being held in the Christmas Island center. Their case has sparked controversy in Australia, where Morrison has overseen a tough crackdown on migration. Carina Ford, a lawyer for the family, told Australia’s SBS News that they had not been formally informed of the plan to move travelers into the center where they are staying and that “it’s not appropriate for them to remain on Christmas Island if you’re quarantining people near them for the purpose of keeping them away from everyone else.”

“There are two children, and it’s quite well-publicized that such viruses can have a bigger impact on children and the elderly,” she said.

WASHINGTON — The 195 people flown to March Air Reserve Base in California on Wednesday are there voluntarily for 72 hours of testing and monitoring, but the government reserves the right to quarantine anyone who it believes would pose a risk to others by leaving, federal health officials said Wednesday.

The passengers, mainly State Department consular officials evacuated from Wuhan, China, will be allowed to continue on to their homes after 72 hours, where they will be monitored by state and local health officials, said Christopher R. Braden, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The evacuees, who include a 1-month-old infant and other children, were screened twice before they boarded the chartered flight — first by the Chinese government, then by U.S. State Department doctors — and then were monitored by medical officials aboard the plane. While it refueled in Anchorage, they were taken off the aircraft and screened again, then screened once more when they landed at the base. One person who had a fever was not allowed to board in China, said Nancy Knight, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Health Protection.

The evacuees will be housed on the base, but separated from personnel there, while specimens are sent to the CDC in Atlanta for testing, officials said. Once it is confirmed that they do not have the virus, they will be sent home, but monitored for the full two weeks of the virus’s incubation period, they said. That includes taking their temperature twice a day and responding to telephone calls from local health officials.

Braden said the people he spoke with mainly want to know whether they have the virus and were amenable to remaining at the base while testing is carried out. But he said if anyone wants to leave before the three-day period expires and officials believe it is too risky, they have the right hold them.

“If we have to do an individual quarantine, we will,” he said. “If we think it’s risky, then we have the tools to protect the public, and we will use them.”

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