Health authorities believe more Australians could unknowingly be carrying the deadly coronavirus as China’s president warned its spread was accelerating.
Four Australians who flew from China have been diagnosed with the potentially fatal respiratory illness, one of whom returned nearly three weeks ago before coming forward.
As Australian authorities rush to contact other passengers on those flights, China’s president Xi Jinping convened an emergency meeting, warning of a “grave situation”, according to the country’s state media.
The death toll jumped from 26 to 42 in a day, including a doctor who had been treating virus patients at ground zero in the city of Wuhan.
Three men from NSW and one Victorian male are in isolation in major hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne after coming forward with symptoms.
The NSW men had travelled from China to Australia on January 6, 19 and 20, potentially infecting more people on flights and in the community.
Authorities are urgently attempting to contact passengers who were on the same planes as the four victims.
Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy said he did not believe the men were contagious during their flights because they did not show symptoms at that time.
Evidence of the flu-like sickness did not become apparent until after each of them arrived in Sydney.
However experts are still learning about the virus and Professor Murphy urged people arriving from Wuhan, as well as those in close contact with them, to look out for symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat, vomiting and difficulty breathing.
“There are potentially others like this person who have travelled to Australia who were well when they arrived who may develop the disease,” said Professor Murphy.
More than 1300 people have been infected globally, most of them in China where the virus first emerged from a seafood market that was illegally selling wildlife in the city of Wuhan.
Coronavirus has been confirmed in other countries including Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, France, Malaysia and the United States.
A number of Chinese cities have imposed travel bans during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, with Wuhan’s 11 million residents in lockdown.
Australians with coronavirus
Two of the Australian cases hospitalised in Sydney flew directly from Wuhan – a 53-year-old on January 20 and a 43-year-old two days prior.
The third man, aged 35, arrived from the southern city of Shenzhen on January 6.
A fourth, also aged in his 50s, was Australia’s first confirmed case of the virus after he touched down in Melbourne from Guangzhou on January 19.
Only the 53-year-old man is thought to have been contagious while travelling to Australia. He flew to Sydney on China Eastern flight MU749, and authorities are obtaining details of other passengers on that flight.
Meanwhile, passengers on China Southern Airlines flight CZ321 from Guangzhou to Melbourne on January 19 are also being contacted as a precaution.
The Melbourne coronavirus patient spent two weeks in Wuhan before coming to Australia on Sunday, January 19 but did not contact the GP until Thursday 23 January after developing symptoms.
Professor Murphy said the risk to Australians was greatest among people who travelled in the week before the Wuhan travel ban was imposed last Thursday.
Australians are being told not to travel to Wuhan or China’s Hubei province.
Hong Kong emergency
Hong Kong has declared a virus ’emergency’, restricting links to mainland China, where the death toll from the coronavirus has jumped to 41 from 26 a day earlier.
The US is arranging a charter flight on Sunday to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan, the central Chinese city that is the epicentre of the outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported.
France is also planning to evacuate French nationals trapped by the Chinese government’s lockdown in Wuhan, the South China Morning Post reported.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said flights and high speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan would be halted.
Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until February 17 and education authorities have asked universities to extend leave for students.
State-run China Global Television Network reported in a tweet on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.
US coffee chain Starbucks said it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald’s in five Hubei cities.