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Xi: China’s virus situation remains ‘grim, complex’

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As death toll rises to 132, economist says growth may slow to 5% or even lower in first quarter

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: The US and Japan evacuated their nationals from a quarantined city while British Airways suspended flights to China as deaths from the Wuhan virus leapt to 132 and a 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 Organisation but confirmation of another 1,459 cases - taking the total to 5,974 in China - only fuelled public alarm around the world.

Deaths from the flu-like virus also rose by 26 to 132.

Almost all 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 is 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 Mr 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.

The gambling hub of Macau was virtually a ghost town, while malls in Asian capitals were bare.

Sectors from mining to luxury goods have been shaken.

A Chinese government economist said growth may slow to 5 per cent or even lower in the first quarter of this year as the crisis hits more sectors, which could impel policymakers to unveil more stimulus measures.

The outbreak could cut first quarter gross domestic product growth by about 1 percentage point, economist Zhang Ming, at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - a top government think-tank - said in a report published in Caijing magazine.

Growth was 6 per cent in Q4.

In what could be a big 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 US Centres 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 US Embassy in Beijing.

A US government official said 50 diplomats and contractors were among the passengers.

Australia said it would help some citizens leave and then quarantine them on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, best known for housing asylum seekers.

The number of cases in China now exceeds its tally of 5,327 infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.