Australia’s chief medical officer has warned there will likely be more cases of the deadly coronavirus confirmed in the country, as the federal government explores plans to evacuate Australian citizens from the pandemic’s epicentre in central China.
Prof Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, said more cases of 2019-nCoV were likely, following the confirmation of four cases. NSW Health said on Sunday afternoon a fourth person had tested positive, according to their preliminary test results, though more follow-up was needed.
Three men are in hospital in Sydney after flying in from China, while another man in his 50s is being treated in Melbourne.
Coronavirus has killed 56 people in China and the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the illness, remains in lockdown. Almost 2,000 people have been infected with the virus in China, and cases have been also been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, France, Malaysia and the United States.
“There is no cause for general concern [in Australia],” Murphy told reporters in Melbourne on Sunday.
“I would not be surprised if there are some more cases ... it’s highly likely that we may see them some more.
“We are incredibly well prepared to isolate and deal with that.”
Meanwhile, the Australian government is exploring options to evacuate Australian nationals stuck inside the locked down areas of China, around Wuhan city in central Hubei province.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, said her department was “working closely with Chinese authorities and international partners to consider possible assistance with travel for Australians from areas that are affected by Chinese travel restrictions”.
“Given the circumstances of the spread of the coronavirus, Chinese authorities are currently imposing very tight restrictions on all travel from Hubei. We are seeking advice from the Chinese authorities on these restrictions and whether any options are available to international travellers.”
Removing Australian citizens from cities that are under an effective lockdown, enforced by the military, is a logistical challenge.
There are checkpoints surrounding cities such as Wuhan, but whether exceptions are being made for foreign nationals, or on other grounds, is unclear. People brought out of sequestered areas would likely need to be quarantined somewhere else.
The US and France have already announced plans to evacuate their citizens. The US is flying a charter flight from Wuhan to San Francisco bringing its diplomats and other consular personnel out of the country. It has said it will have “limited capacity” for private US citizens, and will prioritise those at “greater risk” from the illness.
French automaker PSA Group says it will evacuate its employees and their families from Wuhan in central China, quarantine them in another major Chinese city and then bring them back to France.
The foreign ministry said French officials were studying “eventual options” for all its nationals to leave if they wish.
Two of the men hospitalised in Sydney flew directly from Wuhan, a 53-year-old on 20 January and a 43-year-old two days prior. The third man, aged 35, arrived from the southern city of Shenzhen on 6 January.
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 19 January. He had previously been in Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated in an illegal wildlife market.
Only the 53-year-old man is thought to have been contagious while travelling to Australia. He flew to Sydney on China Eastern Airlines 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 19 January are also being contacted as a precaution.
Chinese authorities are scrambling to stop the spread of the deadly illness, restricting transport in the Hubei province including its capital Wuhan.
Experts are still learning about the virus and Murphy said it was important people arriving from Wuhan, as well as those in close contact with them, look out for symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat, vomiting and difficulty breathing.
Australians are being told not to travel to Wuhan or Hubei province.