Several countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan in an effort to stop the global spread of an epidemic which has killed 170, with South Korea calling for calm in the face of protests at a quarantine centre.
Asian stocks and currencies fell on Thursday as fatalities rose and more cases were reported around the world.
China’s National Health Commission said the total number of confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in the country climbed to 170 as of late Wednesday and the number of infected patients rose to 7,711.
Almost all the deaths so far have been in the central province of Hubei, home to about 60 million people and now under virtual lockdown. The virus emerged last month in a live wild animal market in the provincial capital Wuhan.
Infections have been reported in at least 15 other nations, with 104 confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said its Emergency Committee would reconvene behind closed doors on Thursday to decide whether the rapid spread of the new virus from China now constitutes a global emergency.
“In the last few days the progress of the virus especially in some countries, especially human-to-human transmission, worries us,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva, naming Germany, Vietnam and Japan.
“Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Plans to isolate hundreds of evacuated foreigners varied between countries.
Australia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand will quarantine all evacuees regardless of whether they showed symptoms for at least two weeks, while the United States and Japan were planning voluntary isolation for shorter periods.
Two returnees from Japan tested positive for the virus in Tokyo on Thursday although they showed no symptoms, explaining why some countries are planning extreme quarantine measures for the entire incubation period of up to 14 days.
South Korean protesters used tractors to block access to facilities earmarked as quarantine centres in the cities of Asan and Jincheon, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul, on Wednesday.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday urged residents not to give in to fear as the country prepared to evacuate the first of around 700 citizens from Wuhan.
“The weapons that will protect us from the new coronavirus are not fear and aversion but trust and cooperation,” Moon said in a speech on Thursday, decrying “fake news” as creating excessive anxiety.
The first of up to four planned flights to Wuhan had been due to depart South Korea on Thursday morning, but were delayed for unspecified reasons, Yonhap news agency reported. The flights were still expected to depart by later in the day.
Singapore’s foreign ministry said it was returning 92 Singaporeans from Wuhan on Thursday. All returning passengers, and foreign ministry staff accompanying them, will either be taken to hospital or quarantined for 14 days.
Nearly 200 Americans, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, airlifted from Wuhan on Wednesday will remain isolated at a U.S. military base in California for at least 72 hours of medical evaluation, public health officials said.
A second flight with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed in Japan on Thursday with nine people showing symptoms of fever or coughing, broadcaster NHK reported. The first flight landed on Wednesday and at least one more is expected in coming days.
Three Japanese who returned on the first flight on Wednesday were confirmed to be infected with the virus, said the health ministry, two of the three had not shown any symptoms.
Japan will declare the virus as a “designated infectious disease” from starting Feb. 7 which will allow compulsory hospitalisation, but will not apply to those without symptoms.
Chinese National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei on Sunday said the virus was infectious during incubation, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from China and killed about 800 people in 2002-2003.
VIRUS HITTING CHINA ECONOMY
The effects of the virus are already weighing heavily on China’s economy, the world’s second-biggest, with companies cutting corporate travel and tourists cancelling trips during the traditional Lunar New Year holiday period.
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.
Various airlines are cutting flights to the country, from British Airways and Lufthansa to Air Canada and American Airlines.
Alphabet Inc’s Google said it would temporarily shut all its offices in China and Sweden’s IKEA said it had temporarily closed all its stores in the country because of the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
In many Chinese cities, streets were largely deserted. Tourist attractions were closed, while Starbucks coffee shops required people to have their temperatures taken and to wear masks