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Three Americans Killed in Australia Firefighting Plane Crash

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Three people died Thursday when a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker crashed while battling wildfires in the Snowy Monaro region of Australia’s southern New South Wales state, officials said.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the deaths and crash in comments to reporters as Australia attempts to deal with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction.

“The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

He said all three aboard were U.S. residents.

“Unfortunately, all we’ve been able to do is locate the wreckage and the crash site and we have not been able to locate any survivors,” he said.

Berejiklian said there were more than 1,700 volunteers and personnel in the field, and five fires were being described at an “emergency warning level.”

Firefighters battle the Morton Fire as it consumes a home near Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia, Jan. 23, 2020.

Also Thursday, Canberra Airport closed because of nearby wildfires, and residents south of Australia’s capital were told to seek shelter.

The blaze started Wednesday, but strong winds and high temperatures caused conditions in Canberra to deteriorate. A second fire near the airport that started Thursday morning is at the “watch and act” level.
“Arrivals and departures are affected due to aviation firefighting operations,” the airport authority said in a tweet.

Another tweet from traffic police said “the fire is moving fast and there are multiple road closures in the area. Please avoid the area. Local roadblocks in place.”

Residents in some Canberra suburbs were advised to seek shelter and others to leave immediately.

“The defense force is both assisting to a degree and looking to whether that needs to be reinforced,” Defense Minister Angus Campbell told reporters.

“I have people who are both involved as persons who need to be moved from areas and office buildings that are potentially in danger, and also those persons who are part of the (Operation) Bushfire Assist effort,” he said.



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Australian Firefighting Plane Feared to Have Crashed

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Officials in Australia searched Thursday for a water tanker plane feared to have crashed while fighting wildfires.

Rural Fire Service officials said helicopters were looking for the plane, which might have crashed in the Snowy Monaro region of New South Wales state.

There were few other initial details about the plane or the search.

Also Thursday, Canberra Airport closed because of nearby wildfires, and residents south of Australia’s capital were told to seek shelter.

The blaze started Wednesday, but strong winds and high temperatures caused conditions in Canberra to deteriorate. A second fire near the airport that started Thursday morning is at the “watch and act” level.

“Arrivals and departures are affected due to aviation firefighting operations,” the airport authority said in a tweet.

Another tweet from traffic police said “the fire is moving fast and there are multiple road closures in the area. Please avoid the area. Local roadblocks in place.”

Residents in some Canberra suburbs were advised to seek shelter and others to leave immediately.

“The defense force is both assisting to a degree and looking to whether that needs to be reinforced,” Defense Minister Angus Campbell told reporters.

“I have people who are both involved as persons who need to be moved from areas and office buildings that are potentially in danger, and also those persons who are part of the (Operation) Bushfire Assist effort,” he said.
 



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US Journalist Arrested in Indonesia Over Alleged Visa Violation

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An American journalist working for an environmental website has been arrested over an alleged visa violation in Indonesia that could send him to jail for years, his employer said Wednesday.

Philip Jacobson, 30, was initially detained last month after attending a hearing in Borneo involving the local parliament and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Indonesia’s largest indigenous rights advocacy group, the website Mongabay said.

This week, Jacobson was formally arrested and told he faced up to five years in prison for visiting Indonesia with the wrong visa, it added.

He had traveled to the country on a business visa, according to Mongabay.

“We are supporting Philip in this ongoing case and making every effort to comply with Indonesia’s immigration authorities,” said Mongabay chief Rhett A. Butler.

“I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter.”

Borneo officials disputed claims the arrest may have been linked to Jacobson’s involvement in sensitive stories about Indonesia’s myriad environmental and corruption woes.

“This is purely an immigration law enforcement matter,” immigration spokesman Muhammad Syukran told AFP.

“There’s no other issue — we don’t have a problem with his work.”

Jacobson had repeatedly entered and left Indonesia on a non-journalist visa, he added.

“While we of course urge all foreign journalists visiting Indonesia to ensure they follow immigration rules, if a journalist is simply attending meetings or happens to be present during a news event this should not be cause for punitive action or detention,” the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Clubs said in a statement.

The U.S. embassy in Jakarta did not immediately comment.



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WHO Experts Postpone Decision on Coronavirus as a Global Risk

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Experts meeting in emergency session at the World Health Organization have been unable to agree on the global health risks of the new coronavirus, which has sickened more than 500 people and caused at least 17 deaths. The experts have decided to continue their discussions Thursday. 

At the end of daylong marathon discussions on the dangers posed by the new coronavirus, WHO experts have remained split on whether the virus poses a global health risk demanding stringent measures to control.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the experts for their excellent discussions, but said it is clear that more information is needed to proceed.

“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence,” Tedros said. “Our team is on the ground with China, as we speak, working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak and get more information.”

FILE – Medical staff carry a box as they walk at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Jan. 10, 2020.

Tedros said he is following China’s decision to close down public transport in the Chinese city of Wuhan to try to stop the outbreak from spreading. The coronavirus was detected in Wuhan three weeks ago. Tedros said he is in daily contact with Chinese authorities.

“What they are doing is a very, very strong measure and with full commitment,” Tedros said. “So, based on the situation, taking the action that they think is appropriate is very important. We stressed to them that by having a strong action, not only they will control the outbreak in their country, but they will also minimize the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally.”

The disease is mainly transmitted from animals to humans, but scientists have ascertained that there is limited human-to-human transmission. The health experts who will reconvene Thursday at WHO headquarters are warning people to avoid coming in close contact with people suspected of carrying the virus.



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Father, Daughter Discuss Visiting Chinese Students

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Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia, canceled a visit by a group of 20 students from Yichang, Hubei province, China, about 321 kilometers from Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak is occurring.

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Ping Song, who went to Longfellow to retrieve his daughter, told VOA’s Mandarin Service (translated): “We have known that there would be a group of exchange students from Yichang, China, visiting. They would enter the building at 2:30 or later this afternoon. We are very worried about this, because the coronavirus outbreak in China is severe now, and people discuss this issue on WeChat every day. We can’t say that those people surely carry this virus, but we’d like to be cautious just in case, since the situation is not too optimistic at this point. This morning we had a meeting with the school, and they thought it hasn’t reached the level to make changes to the plan. So we think the exchange students will still enter the building this afternoon according to their plan. Therefore, I discussed this with my wife, and decided to pick up our daughter earlier today, and then see how it goes, if there are any changes for the next step.”

His daugher, nicknamed Xixi, said in Mandarin (translated): “I’m pretty worried if they carry the virus, because it’s contagious. A lot of my classmates around are discussing about this issue, wondering if we might be infected. Everyone is talking about this in group chat, and we are considering not coming to school perhaps.”

In Wuhan, China, the government issued Wednesday a lockdown on travel to avoid the spread of the deadly coronavirus.



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Why Hong Kong’s economy is more than capable of weathering the recent protest headwinds

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The protests that have gripped Hong Kong for over seven months have been credited with taking a heavy toll on the economy. The impact on the tourism sector has received particular attention – in October, for example, the number of visitors from the mainland dropped 46.9 per cent compared to the previous month.

These stark figures are compounded by anecdotal accounts of students, academics, businesses and professionals considering leaving Hong Kong.

Hong Kong entered a technical recession in…



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What We Know So Far About New China Virus

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A new SARS-like virus has killed 17 people in China, infected hundreds and reached as far as the United States, with fears mounting about its spread as hundreds of millions travel for Lunar New Year celebrations, which start Friday.

Many countries have stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan, the Chinese city identified as the epicenter, and the World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting.

Here’s what we know so far about the virus:

It’s entirely new

The pathogen appears to be a never-before-seen strain of coronavirus — a large family of viruses that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003.

Arnaud Fontanet, head of the department of epidemiology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told AFP the current virus strain was 80% genetically identical to SARS.

China has already shared the genome sequencing of this novel coronavirus with the international scientific community.

It has been named “2019-nCoV”.

It’s being passed between humans 

The WHO said Monday it believed an animal source was the “primary source” of the outbreak, and Wuhan authorities identified a seafood market as the center  of the epidemic.

But China has since confirmed that there was evidence the virus is now passing from person to person, without any contact with the now-closed market.

The virus has infected more than 400 people across the country, with most cases in Wuhan, according to officials. Li Bin of China’s National Health Commission on Wednesday said 1,394 people were still under medical observation.

Doctor Nathalie MacDermott of King’s College London said it seems likely that the virus is spread through droplets in the air from sneezing or coughing.

Doctors at the University of Hong Kong published an initial paper on Tuesday modeling the spread of the virus which estimated that there have been some 1,343 cases in Wuhan — similar to a projection of 1,700 last week by scientists at Imperial College, London.

Both are much higher than official figures.

Health Officials in hazmat suits wait at the gate to check body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan, Jan. 22, 2020, at the airport in Beijing, China.

It is milder than SARS

Compared with SARS, the symptoms appear to be less aggressive, and experts say the death toll is still relatively low. However, the milder nature of the virus can also cause alarm.

The outbreak comes as China prepares for the Lunar New Year holiday, with hundreds of millions traveling across the country to see family.

Professor Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that the fact that the virus seems milder in the majority of people is “paradoxically more worrying” as it allows people to travel further before their symptoms are detected.

International public health emergency? 

The WHO will hold a meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern” and if so, what should be done to manage it.

Cases have so far been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau and the United States.

The WHO has only used the rare label a handful of times, including during the H1N1 — or swine flu — pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016.

The Chinese government announced Tuesday it was classifying the outbreak in the same category as the SARS outbreak, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the disease and the potential to implement quarantine measures on travel.

Global precautions 

As the number of confirmed deaths and infections has risen, so has concern worldwide about the disease spreading to other countries.

In Thailand, authorities have introduced mandatory thermal scans of passengers arriving at airports in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Krabi from high-risk areas in China.

In Hong Kong, where hundreds died during the SARS outbreak, authorities have said they are on high alert, carrying out scans at the city’s airport — one of the world’s busiest — and at other international land and sea crossing points.

The United States also ordered the screening of passengers arriving on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, including at airports in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Taiwan has issued travel advisories, and went to its second-highest alert level for those traveling to or from Wuhan. Vietnam has also ordered more border checks on its border with China.

In Europe, Britain and Italy have said they will introduce enhanced monitoring of flights from Wuhan, while Romania and Russia are also strengthening checks.
 



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China Slams US for 'Spreading Rumors' About BRI Investments in Pakistan

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China has defended its infrastructure development investments in Pakistan as “open and transparent,” refuting renewed U.S. criticism of the ongoing multibillion-dollar economic collaboration under Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad issued the rebuttal Wednesday in response to comments in Pakistani media attributed to a visiting senior U.S. diplomat questioning the transparency and fairness of projects being implemented in what is known as the bilateral China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of the trillion-dollar BRI.

“The entire process is open and transparent and is in line with the international norm. We keep in touch with the relative accountability agencies of Pakistan and it is agreed that the CPEC is clean,” the Chinese diplomatic mission stressed in its statement.

‘Debt trap’ allegations

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells, who visited Pakistan this week, was also quoted as saying the CPEC-related financing was burdening Pakistan with expensive Chinese loans. She had raised similar concerns and questions while delivering a public speech in Washington last November.

FILE – Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary to South Asia, testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019.

Critics in the U.S. and elsewhere see China’s BRI program as a “debt trap” for countries like Pakistan, which have struggling economies that would make it difficult for them to make Chinese loan repayments.

“The U.S. keeps fabricating the so-called debt story, their mathematics is bad, and their intention is worse,” the Chinese Embassy asserted. “China has never forced other countries to pay debts, and will not make unreasonable demands on Pakistan.”

China has invested around $30 billion, mostly in direct foreign investment, over the past five years in early harvest CPEC projects. The investment has significantly improved local transportation infrastructure and constructed power plants, effectively ending crippling nationwide electricity shortages.

‘Rock-solid’ ties

Chinese and Pakistani officials say the economic collaboration has also created more than 75,000 jobs directly for locals and contributed 1%-2% of the GDP growing in Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy cited the Pakistani central bank’s statistics, saying the total foreign debt of Pakistan stood at $110 billion, with Western financial institutions, including the Paris Club and International Monetary Fund (IMF), being the largest creditors of the country.

“Loan for the CPEC is about $5.8 billion, accounting for 5.3% of Pakistan’s total foreign debt, with a repayment period of 20-25 years and an interest rate of approximately 2%,” the Chinese statement noted. The repayments will start in 2021, with annual repayments of about $300 million, it explained.

The embassy alleged the “negative propaganda” against CPEC by the U.S. was aimed at undermining Beijing’s close relationship with Islamabad.

FILE – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan reviews the honor guard during a welcome ceremony with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Oct. 8, 2019.

“China-Pakistan ties are rock-solid and unbreakable. China will continue to work with the Pakistani government and people to steadily advance the BRI and CPEC to promote regional peace and development,” stressed the Chinese statement.

CPEC has also built and opened Pakistan’s strategically located deep-water Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, which is being operated by a Chinese state company.  

U.S.-Pakistan talks

U.S. diplomat Wells during her four-day visit to Islamabad this week, which officially ended Wednesday, held extensive talks with senior Pakistani officials, focusing on boosting bilateral trade and investment ties. Her trip took place amid Islamabad’s warming relations with Washington stemming from recent joint efforts aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest.

U.S. President Donald Trump met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the third interaction between the two leaders since their July 2019 White House meeting.

“We’re getting along very well. I would say we’ve never been closer with Pakistan than we are right now. And that’s a big statement,” Trump acknowledged while speaking to reporters before his meeting with Khan.

Pakistani officials say they want to enhance commercial ties with the U.S. but will not “compromise” on Islamabad’s relations and CPEC commitments with China.
 



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Huawei Founder Says Company Can Withstand Increased US Pressure

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Despite the U.S.-China trade deal signed last week, the two countries appear headed for more confrontation, especially over high tech.

One of China’s highest-profile tech executives, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Tuesday that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei. But he vowed that the world leader in building 5G networks is prepared to withstand further restrictions on its foreign markets and suppliers.

Analysts say his remarks suggest that the Chinese may be ready to directly confront Americans in the global competition for high-tech advancements, which are seen at the core of trade frictions.

Tech war is on

“He [Ren] is fully aware that the tech competition between the U.S. and China will escalate. The U.S. has no plan to cut China some slack simply because they have just signed the Phase 1 deal. Both are now entering the battleground of their tech disputes,” said Lin Tsung-nan, professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Beijing’s critics say Huawei acts as a virtual arm of the Chinese government, benefitting from favorable policies and funding that have sped its expansion around the world. They warn countries that allow Huawei to build their new wireless data networks that they are giving Beijing’s authoritarian government enormous influence over their security. Instead, U.S. officials argue, countries should trust American, European, Korean and other companies.

Ren Zhengfei, founder and chief executive officer of Huawei Technologies, gestures during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 21, 2020.

Provisions in the U.S.-China Phase 1 trade agreement aim to root out Chinese state policies that encourage intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. However the deal leaves open questions about enforcement. Many, including Huawei chief Ren, remain skeptical that the countries will reach an agreement on such issues.

Speaking to the audience in Davos, Ren said he believes the United States will escalate its crackdown on Huawei, but that the impact will be minimal as the company has adapted to restrictions imposed since last year.

Huawei and its 46 affiliates were targeted in 2019 after the U.S. government concluded that the company has long engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security. Ren’s daughter, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, is fighting an extradition case in Canada stemming from allegations she committed fraud by lying about Huawei’s relationship with an affiliate doing business in Iran.

Huawei’s Plan B

Analysts have mixed views about the long-term impact of the blacklisting on Huawei. Ren said he is optimistic because Huawei has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its own core technology over the past few years, including chips and software. Last year, the company released its own operating system, called HarmonyOS, though, so far, it hasn’t been installed in any of the company’s smartphones.

It has also released a flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, without licensed Google Android software. Sales in China have been in line with expectations, although its global sales target of 20 million units is yet to be met.

FILE – Richard Yu, head of Huawei’s consumer business group, speaks on stage during a presentation to reveal Huawei’s latest smartphones Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro in Munich, Germany, Sept. 19, 2019.

But Professor Lin said the ultimate challenge facing Huawei lies ahead.

“The real test will come after the U.S. completely cuts off [Huawei’s] access to American technology and relevant exchanges. Huawei will then have to prove if its products, manufactured based on its so-called plan B, will continue to be competitive in overseas markets,” the professor said.

More tech restrictions

After having restricted Huawei’s access to American technology, the United States is reportedly looking to introduce a stricter rule that could block Huawei’s access to an increased number of foreign-made goods.

Media reports said the United States plans, among other things, to force Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, to limit its supplies of 14 nanometer chips to Huawei.  

Washington is also lobbying other countries, such as Britain and Germany, to bar Huawei — which it accuses of spying for the Chinese government — from the buildup of their next-generation mobile networks known as 5G.  

Whether U.S. allies will be persuaded to block Huawei from building their 5G networks remains uncertain, but Lin said the stakes in the standoff are clear.

“If China succeeds in using Huawei to dominate [the global 5G network], the free world will gradually fall into China’s high-tech iron curtain. That’s why the U.S. has turned aggressive in blocking Huawei, which has strived after having had copied code from Cisco’s [router software] technology a decade ago,” Lin said.

Escalating tensions

Song Hong at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said he’s worried the U.S. may widen its target to include more Chinese tech firms.

But he said Beijing is adapting to the new reality by gradually cutting its dependence on the U.S. technology.

“China has greatly strengthened its tech capabilities. I think Huawei’s [Ren] speaks on behalf of most Chinese businesses. That is, if you try to block me, I have no choice but to work to find other solutions,” he said.

An executive from China’s tech sector, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said he’s not worried that the U.S.-China tech war will escalate. But he said China should respond to U.S. concerns.

“The U.S. has made a great contribution [to the world’s tech development] and now come up with some requests. I find that reasonable, right? I think China, as a responsible country, should respect and communicate well [with the U.S.] on a reasonable basis,” he said.  

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her Vancouver home with her security detail for an extradition hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Colombia, Jan. 21, 2020.

Warning from Meng’s case

While tech executives look at how the long-term competition between the two countries will play out, the fate of Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder — will impact relations in the short term. Canada has begun week-long court hearings to determine whether to extradite Meng to the United States to stand trial on fraud charges linked to the alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Meng, who was arrested in late 2018 in Canada, denies any wrongdoing.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, said Lin of National Taiwan University, the United States has succeeded in sending a warning to those who have harmed or plan to go against U.S. tech interests.  
 



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Chinese City Stops Outbound Flights, Trains From Wuhan to Fight Virus

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Chinese state media say the city of Wuhan is shutting down outbound flights and trains as the country battles the spread of a new virus that has sickened hundreds and killed 17.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday that the city also asked people not to leave Wuhan without specific reasons.

The state-owned People’s Daily newspaper said in a tweet that no one would be allowed to leave the city starting at 10 a.m. and that train stations and the airport will shut down. It said that city buses, subways, ferries and long-distance shuttle buses would also be temporarily closed, citing Wuhan authorities.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization said it had put off deciding whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency and asked its expert committee on the issue to continue their meeting for a second day Thursday. The organization defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

The number of new cases has risen sharply in China, the center of the outbreak. Seventeen people have died, all in Hubei province, since the outbreak emerged in its provincial capital of Wuhan late last month, officials announced Wednesday night. They said the province has confirmed 444 cases there.

Passengers wear masks to prevent an outbreak of a new coronavirus in the high speed train station, in Hong Kong, Jan. 22, 2020.

“There has already been human-to-human transmission and infection of medical workers,” Li Bin, deputy director of the National Health Commission, said at a news conference with health experts. “Evidence has shown that the disease has been transmitted through the respiratory tract and there is the possibility of viral mutation.”

The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people. Some experts have drawn parallels between the new coronavirus and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, another coronavirus that does not spread very easily among humans and is thought to be carried by camels.

But WHO’s Asia office tweeted this week that “there may now be sustained human-to-human transmission,” which raises the possibility that the epidemic is spreading more easily and may no longer require an animal source to spark infections, as officials initially reported.

Global spread

Authorities in Thailand on Wednesday confirmed four cases, a Thai national and three Chinese visitors. Japan, South Korea, the United States and Taiwan have all reported one case each. All of the illnesses were of people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

“The situation is under control here,” Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters, saying there are no reports of the infection spreading to others. “We checked all of them: taxi drivers, people who wheeled the wheelchairs for the patients, doctors and nurses who worked around them.”

Macao, a former Portuguese colony that is a semi-autonomous Chinese city, reported one case Wednesday.

Emergency status

Some experts said they believe the threshold for the outbreak to be declared an international emergency had been reached.

Dr. Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University, said there were three criteria for such a determination: the outbreak must be an extraordinary event, there must be a risk of international spread and a globally coordinated response is required.

“In my opinion, those three criteria have been met,” he said.

Hospital staff wash the emergency entrance of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Jan. 22, 2020.

In response to the U.S. case, President Donald Trump said: “We do have a plan, and we think it’s going to be handled very well. We’ve already handled it very well. … we’re in very good shape, and I think China’s in very good shape also.”

In Wuhan, pharmacies limited sales of face masks to one package per customer as people lined up to buy them. Residents said they were not overly concerned as long as they took preventive measures.

“As an adult, I am not too worried about the disease,” Yang Bin, the father of a 7-year-old, said after buying a mask. “I think we are more worried about our kids. … It would be unacceptable to the parents if they got sick.”

Medical workers in protective suits could be seen carrying supplies and stretchers into Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some of the patients are being treated.

Travel agencies that organize trips to North Korea said the country has banned foreign tourists because of the outbreak. Most tourists to North Korea are either Chinese or travel to the country through neighboring China. North Korea also closed its borders in 2003 during the SARS scare.

Other countries have stepped up screening measures for travelers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan. Worries have been heightened by the Lunar New Year holiday rush, when millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad.

Learning process

Officials said it was too early to compare the new virus with SARS or MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, in terms of how lethal it might be. They attributed the spike in new cases to improvements in detection and monitoring.

“We are still in the process of learning more about this disease,” Gao Fu, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said at the news conference.

Gao said officials are working on the assumption that the outbreak resulted from human exposure to wild animals being sold illegally at a food market in Wuhan and that the virus is mutating. Mutations can make it spread faster or make people sicker.

Staff members sell masks at a Yifeng Pharmacy in Wuhan, China, Jan. 22, 2020.

Jiao Yahui, a health commission official, said the disease “will continue to develop. It has developed different features compared with the early stage, and the prevention and precautionary measures need to change accordingly.”

One veteran of the SARS outbreak said that while there are some similarities in the new virus — namely its origins in China and the link to animals — the current outbreak appears much milder.

Dr. David Heymann, who headed WHO’s global response to SARS in 2003, said the new virus appears dangerous for older people with other health conditions, but doesn’t seem nearly as infectious as SARS.

“It looks like it doesn’t transmit through the air very easily and probably transmits through close contact,” he said. “That was not the case with SARS.”

Health officials confirmed earlier this week that the disease can be spread between humans after finding two infected people in Guangdong province in southern China who had not been to Wuhan.

Fifteen medical workers also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission has said. Fourteen of them — one doctor and 13 nurses — were infected by a patient who had been hospitalized for neurosurgery but also had the coronavirus.

“This is a very profound lesson, which is that there must not be any cracks in our prevention and control,” Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said about the infections of the medical workers in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

Experts worry in particular when health workers are sickened in outbreaks by new viruses, because it can suggest the disease is becoming more transmissible and because spread in hospitals can often amplify the epidemic.

The Lunar New Year is a time when many Chinese return to their hometowns to visit family. Li, the health commission official, said measures were being taken to monitor and detect infected people from Wuhan, and that people should avoid going to the city, and people from the city should stay put for now.
 



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