Xi says China fighting 'demon' virus as nations prepare airlifts

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Wuhan (China) (AFP) - China is battling a "demon" virus that has so far killed more than 100 people, President Xi Jinping said Tuesday, as foreign nations prepared to evacuate their citizens and the US said it was developing a vaccine.

Xi made his remarks during talks with the head of the World Health Organization in Beijing amid growing global concerns about a novel coronavirus that has infected thousands in China and reached more than a dozen other countries.

In a development that could cause more jitters abroad, Japan and Germany reported the first confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission outside of China.

World markets outside Asia nevertheless rebounded following a global sell-off fuelled by the spread of the virus.

The infection is believed to have originated in a wild-animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where it jumped to humans before spreading rapidly across the country, prompting authorities to enact drastic nationwide travel restrictions in recent days.

Countries are also concerned about the fate of thousands of foreigners stuck in Wuhan, a city of 11 million that has been sealed off by Chinese authorities in a bid to contain the disease.

A plane sent by Tokyo landed in the virus-stricken metropolis late Tuesday and was scheduled to repatriate Japanese nationals on Wednesday, the same day that a US aircraft is expected to bring American citizens back to their homeland.

The European Union will fly its citizens out aboard two French planes this week, and South Korea was due to do the same. Several other countries were assessing their options.

"Chinese people are currently engaged in a serious struggle against an epidemic of a new type of coronavirus infection," Xi told WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing.

"The epidemic is a demon, and we cannot let this demon hide," the Chinese leader said, pledging that the government would be transparent and release information in a "timely" manner.

His comments came as anger simmered on Chinese social media over the handling of the health emergency by local officials in central Hubei province.

Some experts have praised Beijing for being more reactive and open about this crisis than it was during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002-2003.

But others say local cadres were more focused on projecting stability earlier in January than in adequately responding to the outbreak during regional political meetings.

Since then, the number of cases has soared -- doubling to more than 4,500 in the past 24 hours.

In Washington, US health authorities said a vaccine was in the works but would take months to develop.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called on Beijing to show "more cooperation and transparency," saying the US had offered its help three times -- so far without success.

- Contagion abroad -

The WHO last week stopped short of declaring the outbreak a global emergency, which could have prompted a more aggressive international response, such as travel restrictions.

Following the high-level talks with Xi in Beijing, the WHO said the two sides had agreed to send international experts to China "as soon as possible... to guide global response efforts."

"Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO's highest priority," Tedros said.

Until Tuesday, all reported cases in more than a dozen countries had involved people who had been in or around Wuhan.

But in Japan, a man in his 60s apparently contracted the virus after driving two groups of tourists visiting from the city earlier in January, the health ministry said.

And a 33-year-old German man contracted the disease from a Chinese colleague from Shanghai who visited Germany last week, according to health officials.

Vietnam has been investigating a possible case of human-to-human transmission.

The development came after countries including Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines announced tighter visa restrictions for people coming from China.

China has taken its own drastic steps to stop the virus, which health officials say is passed between people through sneezing or coughing, and possibly through physical contact.

Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China's National Health Commission, told the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday that the outbreak could peak in a week or 10 days.

Authorities sealed off Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province late last week, trapping more than 50 million people.

China has since extended the Lunar New Year holiday to keep people indoors as much as possible, and suspended a wide range of train services.

On Tuesday, authorities urged Chinese citizens to delay any foreign travel "to protect the health and safety of Chinese and foreign people."

- Ghost town -

Wuhan, meanwhile, has been turned into a near ghost town under a lockdown that has largely confined the industrial hub's residents to their homes.

With a ban on car traffic, the streets were nearly deserted apart from the occasional ambulance -- although the city's hospitals are overwhelmed.

"Everyone goes out wearing masks and they are worried about the infection," said David, a Chinese man who works in Shanghai but found himself trapped in Wuhan after it was put under quarantine. He declined to give his family name.