Evacuation of foreigners from Wuhan hastening spread of virus?

Health expert says countries are justified in ordering evacuations as they are looking after welfare of their citizens.

Japan - Wuhan
Japan began evacuating its citizens on Wednesday from the Chinese city of Wuhan. It was later reported that three of those who were evacuated were infected with coronavirus [Jae C. Hong/AP]

The spread of coronavirus in China has shown no signs of slowing down, as the number of deaths hits 212, and confirmed infections across the country reaches 8,124 as of Friday.

With the city of Wuhan and the greater province of Hubei remaining under lockdown, more countries are following the steps taken by France, Japan and the United States to evacuate its citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak.

However, some questions were raised about the practicality of the move, after reports came out on Thursday that three Japanese citizens tested positive of coronavirus, just hours after being repatriated from Wuhan alongside 203 other people. There have been some speculations that they might have infected other passengers on the plane en route to Tokyo.

Similarly, the US also repatriated 201 of its citizens from Wuhan. The passengers arrived in southern California on Wednesday on board a Boeing 747-400 Kalitta Air cargo plane.

All the passengers on board underwent two screenings before leaving Wuhan, and during their fuel stop in the US state of Alaska. They are now being placed under quarantine for at least three days, before they will be allowed to leave.

US evacuation
A chartered US flight evacuate American government employees and other Americans from Wuhan on Wednesday [Mike Blake/Reuters]

Samples of their tests are being sent to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will determine whether they are free of the virus. So far, none of the passengers has shown any signs of infection.

Turkey also sent a military cargo plane to bring back 35 Turkish and 10 Azerbaijani citizens and their families on Thursday. All, including the crew, will now be put under quarantine for 14 days.

In South Korea, a charter flight carrying 367 of its citizens from Wuhan, landed at the Gimpo International Airport on Friday, South Korea’s foreign ministry said.

About 700 South Koreans have signed up for the charter flights.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the government of New Zealand announced that it will charter a 300-seat aeroplane to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, while Indonesia announced that it is preparing to repatriate its citizens from the sealed-off city.

According to reports, there are at least 53 New Zealand nationals in Wuhan, although the actual number could be higher, depending on the movement of the people around the time that the quarantine was first imposed.

Subject to China’s approval

“New Zealand will be offering any additional seats to Pacific Island and Australian citizens as a matter of priority,” New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.

Peters said the flight was still subject to China’s approval.

The announcement to charter an aircraft from Air New Zealand, part-owned by the government, came a day after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government was working with Canberra to assist the departure of New Zealanders and Australians from Wuhan.

However, Canberra’s decision to keep evacuees in quarantine on Christmas Island for 14 days did not sit well with New Zealanders.

Peters told Radio New Zealand he was “looking at quarantine options within New Zealand”.

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in New Zealand, although a student has been placed in isolation in an Auckland hospital while he undergoes tests.

243 Indonesians, 300 Filipinos in Hubei

Also on Thursday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta will evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, after which it will quarantine them for at least 14 days on arrival to avoid contagion.

Retno Marsudi said the government is working with Beijing authorities on the evacuation.

She said that there were at least 243 Indonesians in areas declared to be in lockdown, the majority of whom were in Wuhan.

As for the Philippines, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the government has already prepared two charter planes to fly to Hubei to bring Filipinos home.

Japan - Wuhan
Buses carrying Japanese citizens, who were evacuated from Wuhan, leave Haneda airport in Tokyo on Wednesday [Stringer/Jiji Press via AFP]

There are an estimated 300 Filipinos in Hubei, according to the Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta Romana.

Earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said repatriating the Filipinos might do more harm than good, as “the virus might spread” in the Philippines.

On Thursday, the Philippines confirmed its first coronavirus infection involving a woman from China.

Pakistan also said on Thursday that it has no immediate plan to evacuate any of some 30,000 nationals living in China to study and work.

Zafar Mirza, who advises Prime Minister Imran Khan on health issues, told a news conference that so far only four Pakistani students in China have been diagnosed with the new virus and their conditions are listed as stable.

He said about 500 Pakistani students were in Wuhan – the site of the outbreak – at the time it surfaced.

Looking after the wellbeing of their citizens

As the evacuations are carried out in the coming days, there have been questions as to the risks of the infection spreading inside the aircraft, in case any of the passengers is already carrying the virus.

Matthew Driskill, a Singapore-based editor of Asian Aviation, said the aeroplane air filters systems will be unlikely to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The filtration system of newer airlines, yes, they are greatly improved. But you are still re-circulating a lot of the air, and no matter how good the filtration system is, it may not be able to filter out something as small as a virus,” Driskill told Al Jazeera.

He also said droplets from passengers coughing inside a plane could also travel a distance so an aeroplane’s filtration system “doesn’t do any good at all”.

Still, Dr Benjamin Cowling, professor for public health at the University of Hong Kong and a World Health Organization consultant, told Al Jazeera that the decision by several countries to evacuate their citizens are based on their “concern for the wellbeing of their citizens.”

“It happens during other situations as well, if there are natural disasters, we hear about countries arranging evacuations for their citizens,” he said.

Cowling also pointed out that the people who are being evacuated from Wuhan are being closely monitored for any signs of infection, or are being quarantined in special facilities.

“I don’t think that there is so much danger in bringing infection back into their home country, when we know that there are already other infections being brought into the US, France or Japan by international travellers anyway,” he explained.

At present, most of the infections detected in other countries are linked back directly to Wuhan, Cowling said.

Within the next few weeks, the extent of the spread of the infection will be much clearer, he said.

As to the severity of the Wuhan coronavirus, Cowling said that compared with the deadly SARS infection in 2003, the proportion of fatalities “so far is quite low” and that it is “much less severe than people might imagine.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies