Countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, as the number of cases overtake the 2003 SARS outbreak inside mainland China.
Flights have been chartered and various quarantine measures have been put in place, ranging from a special medical center to being placed in a detention center in the Indian Ocean.
It comes as the worldwide total rose to more than 6,000 confirmed cases of the virus – after a 30% increase in reported infections on mainland China overnight.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Wednesday the evacuation will be aided by the country’s flag carrier Qantas Airways.
There are more than 600 Australian citizens in Hubei, according to CNN affiliate Nine News, and Morrison said there will be a focus on repatriating “the young, especially infants, and the elderly.”
“I stress that this will be done on a last in, first out basis,” he said. “They would have been shorter-term travelers to that area, they would not have been living there for many years and we are particularly focused on the more vulnerable component.”
The returning Australians will be quarantined on Christmas Island – more than 1,000 miles away from Australia in the Indian Ocean.
Once there, the Australians will be quarantined for as long as 14 days. “But that will be subject to the medical advice we receive,” Morrison added.
The decision has drawn uncomfortable comparisons with the plight of refugees living in a controversial detention center for asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat.
There have been repeated allegations of abuse and even torture of those held in Australia’s offshore detention facilities.
Morrison said Australian returnees would be quarantined for as long as 14 days – subject to medical advice.
Two planes will be sent to Wuhan to help evacuate European Union citizens, Janez Lenarcic, the EU commissioner for crisis management, said in a statement Tuesday.
The first plane left France on Wednesday morning, “while the second one will leave later this week,” the statement added. Other flights may follow in the coming days.
Around 250 French citizens will be transported in the first aircraft, while 100 people from other EU countries will take the second plane.
“EU citizens in the region who want to be repatriated to their home countries can request it, no matter their nationality,” the statement added.
Countries within the EU, such as France and Germany, have planned their own repatriation procedures.
German evacuations are planned to start in the next few days, the Germany Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
A plane will be sent Thursday to repatriate French citizens, according to France’s health ministry. It is expected to take passengers without symptoms of the virus.
“A second flight carrying French nationals who may be carrying the virus is also being planned,” Deputy Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told French television channel CNews on Tuesday.
There are around 800 French citizens in Wuhan.
Italy said it would begin repatriating its citizens from Wuhan this week.
The flight, set to depart Italy on Thursday, will come with medical personnel.
Spain’s government is working with China and the European Union to repatriate Spanish nationals from the Wuhan area, Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya tweeted Tuesday.
“Close coordination is being carried out with the rest of the European partners to expedite the necessary procedures, and also with the Chinese authorities in compliance with the sanitary protocols required for repatriation,” Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a communique published Monday.
The Indian government has begun the process of “preparing to evacuate” Indian nationals affected by situation in Hubei Province, a spokesman confirmed Wednesday.
Screening of passengers started at various airports in India, the Ministry of Health tweeted Wednesday
“Screening of passengers started at #Mohali airport, while medical teams in preparedness at Raja Sansi #Amritsar airport,” tweeted the Health Ministry
New Zealand will evacuate its citizens in joint cooperation with Australia, its government said Wednesday.
It is unclear whether the New Zealanders will join the repatriated Australians on Christmas Island.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement that “specific details of the evacuation plan, including the medical protocols that will be applied to returning New Zealanders and access arrangements on the ground in China, are being worked through by officials.”
A flight carrying 206 Japanese nationals arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday morning on a chartered flight operated by ANA.
Around 440 more Japanese citizens wish to return, and the government is arranging a schedule. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government is preparing to send a second and third chartered flight to Wuhan.
The passengers who return to Tokyo will be quarantined on board and those with any pneumonia-like symptoms will be taken to a special medical center for treatment. Passengers without symptoms will be taken to separate hospitals for further screening.
Japanese citizens who live close to the Huanan Seafood Market – pinpointed by Chinese authorities as the likely source of the virus – and highly-populated areas in Wuhan were given priority on the first flight.
Four charter flights were sent to Wuhan on Wednesday, where almost 700 South Korean citizens have applied to fly out.
Citizens will bear the cost of the flight, and those who wish to fly will be inspected by a medical team from Seoul before being allowed to board the plane.
Returnees will be quarantined in a government facility.
More than two dozen Turkish citizens in Wuhan will be evacuated in the next couple of days, the Turkish ambassador in China, Abdulkadir Emin Onen, told Haberturk news channel on Wednesday.
The 32 citizens are a mix of Wuhan residents, tourists and people there for business, he said, adding they are in good health with “no virus detected,” but will be quarantined for some time on their return to Turkey.
It is unclear whether the plane will land in the capital, Ankara, or Istanbul.
Britain had planned to bring British citizens in Wuhan back to the United Kingdom on Thursday but had to delay the flight, a UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said Wednesday. Around 200 people were due to be on the flight, Britain’s Press Association reported.
It was understood the flight was delayed due to Chinese permissions that did not come through.
“We are doing everything we can to get British people in Wuhan safely back to the UK. A number of countries’ flights have been unable to take off as planned. We continue working urgently to organize a flight to the UK as soon as possible,” the spokeswoman said.
“We remain in close contact with the Chinese authorities and conversations are ongoing at all levels,” the spokeswoman added.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted Wednesday that anyone returning from Wuhan will be isolated for 14 days “with all neccessary medical attention.”
A chartered plane carrying approximately 201 US citizens – mostly diplomats and their families – arrived at March Air Reserve Base in southern California on Wednesday, where health officials were screening passengers.
More Americans remain in Wuhan, hoping to be evacuated at a later date. The State Department said it was unable to accommodate everyone on the flight because of space limitations but is working to identify alternative routes for US citizens to depart Wuhan by land.
“The way this plane was put together, the upper level with the crew was completely separated from the lower passengers,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a news conference.
“So air flow, every sort of interaction between the top and bottom were completely isolated and the crew never got off in China; and there was never any interaction with the passengers,” Zink explained.
There was no blanket quarantine for the passengers when they arrived in California, though several said they would stay at the base voluntarily, said Dr. Chris Braden of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The plan is to hold the passengers for three days, monitoring them for a fever and other symptoms at least twice daily, Braden said.
CNN’s Jake Kwon, Chris Liakos, Helen Regan, Jessie Yeung, Steve George, James Griffiths and Livvy Doherty contributed to this report.