By James T. Arredy and Liza Lin
The U.S. government is arranging a charter flight Sunday to evacuate its citizens and diplomats from the epidemic-stricken Chinese city of Wuhan to the U.S.
The operation comes as the death toll from a newly identified coronavirus that originated in Wuhan climbs above 40 and the number of confirmed infections tops 1,200, with many of the cases in and around the central Chinese city of 11 million people.
The fast spread of the disease in recent days across China and around the world, including two cases in the U.S., has raised fears of a deadly contagion.
Roughly 1,000 American citizens are thought to be in Wuhan, and the U.S. consulate there is reaching out to the ones it knows about to offer them a seat on the plane, a person familiar with the matter said.
The plane seats around 230 people, and will include diplomats from the U.S. consulate as well as Americans and their families. Those evacuated will be responsible for the cost, the person added.
The U.S. government won approval for the operation from China’s Foreign Ministry and other government agencies following negotiations in recent days, this person said.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing and China’s Foreign Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Saturday, the first day of China’s Lunar New Year holiday.
The Boeing 767 jet will have U.S. medical personnel aboard to ensure that anyone affected by the newly identified and little-understood coronavirus is cared for and doesn’t spread it, this person said.
In addition to U.S. diplomatic officers based in Wuhan, any available seats may be offered to non-U.S. citizens, including diplomats of other nations, this person said, adding that the U.S. plans to temporarily shut its Wuhan consulate.
It couldn’t be learned where in the U.S. the plane would fly to.
Other governments are negotiating with Chinese authorities to arrange flights modeled on China’s agreement with the U.S., the person said.
U.S. evacuation operations of this nature have become relatively routine in some parts of the world after natural disasters and political disturbances, but the one planned Sunday appears to be unprecedented for China. The person said U.S. officials considered busing Americans from Wuhan to another city, such as Shanghai, if a flight couldn’t be arranged.
Chinese authorities in recent days have halted almost all transit, including commercial flights, in and out of Wuhan as they attempt to cut off the city and much of Hubei province from the rest of the country, in an extraordinary attempt to prevent the virus from spreading further.
That has left many foreign residents in Wuhan with few options for leaving the city, an important transit hub and manufacturing powerhouse sometimes compared to Chicago or Pittsburgh.
Wuhan is home to the business operations of a number of major U.S. corporations, including auto maker General Motors Co. /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +1.06% It is also home to Chinese state-owned Dongfeng Motor Corp., which is joint venture partners with Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co., as well as France’s Renault SA and PSA Group’s Peugeot. Many foreign employees from these companies as well as their suppliers are based in Wuhan.
The multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev SA brews beer in the city, and We Co.’s WeWork operates co-working spaces there.
One reason U.S. diplomats were keen to organize such an operation was a concern that anyone suspected of coming down with the illness could find themselves in a quarantine of indefinite length, likely with no access to consular assistance, this person said.
One downside for some U.S. citizens in Wuhan is that the plane will fly directly to the U.S., rather than another city in Asia that some U.S. residents of Wuhan might prefer as an interim transit point.
Passengers will be asked to sign a promissory note for the cost of the flight, which is expected to cost many times the price of a commercial flight from China to the U.S., the person familiar with the matter said.
The State Department ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. personnel and their family members from the Wuhan area and posted an alert on its website advising against travel to Hubei province on Thursday, the same day that Wuhan municipal authorities announced the citywide lockdown.