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Coronavirus: Australians at outbreak epicenter to be evacuated

Chinese wear protective respiratory masks in Beijing on Saturday as all major Chinese New Year events have been canceled in the capital city in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which officials said Wednesday has killed 132 people nationwide. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Chinese wear protective respiratory masks in Beijing on Saturday as all major Chinese New Year events have been canceled in the capital city in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which officials said Wednesday has killed 132 people nationwide. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled plans Wednesday to evacuate hundreds of Australians trapped in China amid a spreading coronavirus outbreak and to fly them to Christmas Island where they will be under quarantine for up to two weeks.

The operation was decided upon based on advice from medical professionals and it was being conducted in partnership with New Zealand and will go ahead if given permission by China, he told reporters during a press conference.

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"We cannot give a guarantee that this operation is able to succeed and I also want to stress very clearly that we may not be in a position if we're able to do this in one occasion to do it in another occasion," Morrison said.

The plan was devised as some 600 Australians and 80 New Zealanders are believed to be in Hubei Province, whose capital of Wuhan is where the coronavirus outbreak began in December.

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The disease's spread prompted officials earlier this month to place Wuhan and several other cities under lockdown, affecting millions of people.

Morrison said they have a "limited window" to execute the operation and will be focusing on "isolated and vulnerable Australians," meaning the very young and old and those who have only been in China a short time and lack local support networks.

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"We are moving very, very swiftly to ensure we can put this plan together and put the operation together," Morrison said.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed the joint operation in a statement.

"Specific details of the evacuation plan, including the medical protocols that will be applied to returning New Zealanders, and access arrangements on the ground in China are being worked by officials," she said.

China announced earlier Wednesday that 26 people died since the day prior, increasing the death toll from the coronavirus to 132 while the number of infected increased by 25 percent to 5,974 confirmed cases.

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The number of confirmed cases has surpassed the 5,327 cases of SARS, which killed more than 800 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003, according to the World Health Organization data.

China's National Health Commission said there's an additional 9,239 suspected cases nationwide with nearly 60,000 others currently undergoing medical observation.

In Hubei province, health officials confirmed 840 new cases with 315 located in Wuhan. Twenty-five of the 26 new deaths were reported in Hubei, which also accounts for 3,554 confirmed cases of the disease, known as 2019-nCoV.

British Airways said Wednesday that due to the outbreak it suspended all direct flights to the Asian country, apologizing to customers in a statement.

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"The safety of our customers and crew is always our priority," the company said.

The move followed that by several other airlines, including Air Canada, which canceled select flights to China on Tuesday.

There are at least 80 confirmed cases of the disease in more than 15 countries, with Thailand accounting for the largest number of 14.

The United Arab Emirates also confirmed its first cases of the disease Wednesday, stating in a statement published by the official Emirates News Agency that the patient was a member of a family that had recently traveled from Wuhan.

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