Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks to medical workers in a hospital where coronavirus patients are being treated in Wuhan, China. / Reuters
BEIJING/SHANGHAI — Toyota Motor Corp's production plants in China will stay closed through Feb. 9, the Japanese automaker said on Wednesday, in response to the spread of a new coronavirus that now includes a sharp rise in fatalities.
Toyota, which runs plants in regions such as the northern city of Tianjin and the southern province of Guangdong, said the closures after the Lunar New Year holidays were in line with transport lockdowns in some places, and as it assesses its parts supply situation.
The United States and Japan evacuated their nationals from the quarantined city of Wuhan, while British Airways suspended flights to mainland China.
Deaths have leapt to 132, and a Chinese government economist predicted a huge hit to the economy.
Beijing's pledge to slay the "devil" coronavirus has won the trust of the World Health Organization (WHO) but confirmation of another 1,459 cases — taking the total to 5,974 in China — only fueled public alarm worldwide.
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Travelers with the illness were identified around the world, including in the United States, but almost all of the cases of the illness have been in the central province of Hubei, the capital of which is Wuhan, where the virus emerged last month in a live wild animal market.
The situation remained "grim and complex," Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged.
In many Chinese cities, streets were largely deserted, with the few who ventured out wearing masks. Starbucks stores in Beijing required people to have temperatures taken and posted notices saying it was a state requirement to wear masks inside.
"It's my first time here in Asia, I feel very unlucky," said Brazilian tourist Amanda Lee, 23, reluctantly cutting short a trip. "I couldn't even see the places I wanted, like the Great Wall."
There was relief, however, among those evacuated from Hubei province, home to about 60 million people and under virtual lockdown. "I was extremely worried that I was stuck there," said Takeo Aoyama, who arrived in Tokyo on a chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese out of Wuhan, with more flights planned.
Two of the Japanese evacuated had symptoms of pneumonia, but coronavirus had not been confirmed, medics said.
The virus is weighing heavily on the world's second-biggest economy. Companies are curbing travel to China, and airlines are cutting flights, with British Airways one of the biggest names in aviation to do so.
But in what could be a major step towards taming the disease, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the coronavirus, the first to be recreated outside China.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 210 Americans had been flown out of Wuhan. Those on board the aircraft would be screened several times and evaluated on arrival in California, it said in a statement released via the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
A U.S. government official told Reuters 50 diplomats and contractors were among the passengers.
U.S. officials said the White House was weighing whether to suspend flights to China. It was holding daily meetings on the outbreak and monitoring China-U.S. flights as a likely source of infection, sources briefed on the matter said, though it had decided against suspending air traffic for the time being.
The number of cases in China now exceeds its tally of 5,327 infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus that killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
While some experts believe the new strain, known as "2019-nCoV", is not as deadly as SARS, alarm has grown over its rapid spread and many unknown attributes, such as how lethal it is.
Like other respiratory infections, it is spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes, with an incubation time between one and 14 days. There are signs it may spread before symptoms show.
About 60 cases, but no deaths, have been reported in 15 other countries, including the United States, France and Singapore.