SYDNEY - Australia is awaiting permission from China to airlift its citizens out of the coronavirus-hit province of Hubei and put them into quarantine on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. Health authorities say seven cases of the potentially deadly disease have been diagnosed in Australia.
More than 600 Australians are waiting to be repatriated from the epicenter of the coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan. American and Japanese nationals have already been flown out by their governments, and authorities in Canberra hope to do the same.
However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the rescue mission must have Chinese approval.
"I want to stress 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 are able to do this on one occasion to do it on another occasion,” he said.
Officials in Canberra have confirmed two Australian citizens in China have been infected with the coronavirus.
If other stranded Australians are allowed to leave, they’d be taken into isolation on Christmas Island, which has been used to detain asylum seekers. There are concerns, however, that health facilities on the remote Indian Ocean territory might not be able to cope.
Professor Dominic Dwyer, an infectious diseases expert, says there’s no need to repatriate foreigners from China.
"My personal opinion is that if people are — even if they are in Wuhan, if they are essentially self-quarantined at home, which when you look at pictures of cars on the street certainly seems to be the case then they are probably actually OK," said Dwyer. "But I think the sort of rushing in of planes to pull people out I do not think helps allay the general anxiety of the population.”
Scientists in Melbourne say they have recreated the coronavirus in a laboratory. It’s the first time this has been done outside China, and could help determine if any future vaccines are effective. It could also allow researchers to develop a test to identify patients who might be infected, even before they show any symptoms.
Australia is beefing up its biosecurity measures. All members of the Chinese women’s national football team are currently in isolation in Brisbane ahead of a major tournament.
The World Health Organization estimates the death rate of the coronavirus is around 2% and most infected people appear only to experience mild illness. In comparison, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, killed about 10% of people who caught it in 2003.