The U.S. government is working to evacuate American citizens by air from the epidemic-stricken Chinese city of Wuhan as soon as possible, according to people familiar with the effort.
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 1,300, 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 those it knows about to offer a seat on the plane, these people 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 U.S. government won approval to conduct such an operation from China’s Foreign Ministry and other government agencies following negotiations in recent days, one of these people said. Scheduling issues for the charter may scuttle initial plans to fly on Sunday, but the operation is expected to go ahead, this person said.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. China’s Foreign Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the first day of the country’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, one of these people 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 plans are still being formulated and could change. The U.S. plans to temporarily shut its Wuhan consulate, this person added.
It couldn’t be learned exactly when the flight, to be flown by a private charter company, would take place or where in the U.S. the plane would go.
Lilly Alice Yuan, a 27-year-old Baltimore resident who is in Wuhan visiting relatives, is among the U.S. citizens hoping to get on a plane out of the locked-down city—“the sooner the better,” said Ms. Yuan, who said she was caught off-guard as the outbreak intensified. “There are a lot of unknowns,” she 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 being planned now would likely be the first in decades from China. The personsaid 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 with few options for leaving Wuhan, an important transit hub and manufacturing powerhouse sometimes compared to Chicago or Pittsburgh.
Wuhan hosts business operations of a number of major U.S. corporations, including auto maker General Motors Co. 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.
Other governments are negotiating with Chinese authorities to arrange flights modeled on China’s agreement with the U.S., according to people familiar with the matter.
In addition to the U.S., other countries with consulates in Wuhan include France, the U.K. and South Korea.
France, which has several hundred citizens living in Wuhan, said on the website of its China embassy that it is arranging a bus service for citizens in Wuhan who wanted to leave the city. Other European countries are considering similar arrangements, according to people familiar with the matter.
South Korea is considering chartering a plane for its citizens, said a person familiar with the matter.
Though Tokyo doesn’t have a consulate in Wuhan, the Japanese business community there has asked embassy officials for an evacuation plan, according to another person familiar with the matter.
At least three Southeast Asian nations are also mulling an evacuation of their citizens, according to people familiar with the matter.
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, one of the people familiar with the matter said. Many foreigners who live in China use Western doctors at private clinics instead of the country’s government-run hospitals, but their services may not be available during the outbreak.
Permission for the American evacuation operation might have hinged on the U.S. government’s pledge to its Chinese counterpart that responsibility for the risks of flying out potentially infected people would be borne by the U.S., this person said.
Passengers will be asked to sign a promissory note for the cost of the flight, which is expected to be many times the price of a commercial flight from China to the U.S., this person said.
American citizens can choose to stay, but the charter flight ensures that “Americans who want out can leave,” this person said.
The State Department relies in large part on American citizens abroad joining its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP—a program that is being used for the Wuhan evacuation plans.
The State Department this week 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.
“The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Hubei province,” read the advisory.
By James T. Areddy and Liza Lin