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Europe steps up China virus fight, aims to repatriate 600

BRUSSELS – Europe stepped up efforts Wednesday to counter a spreading virus from China that has killed more than 130 people.

Airlines have canceled flights to the Chinese mainland, while businesses have told employees to work from home and EU nations made plans to repatriate some 600 citizens from China.

As concerns rose about the spread of the virus, officials sought to both calm the public and put up better barriers to protect citizens and workers. At least 10 people are known to have been infected in Europe so far — in France, Germany and Finland.

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn announced Wednesday evening a fifth case in France, the daughter of an 80-year-old Chinese tourist on artificial respiration in a Paris hospital. The man had initially been turned away for testing from two hospitals because he didn't meet all the criteria of a suspect case.

The deadly virus that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan “is likely to get worse before it will get better," European Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

He said the EU has offered help to China to deal with the virus and can mobilize emergency financing and medical teams if needed.

He said planning for the evacuations was still underway. The United States and Japan have already evacuated some citizens from the affected area in China. Britain said it expected to bring back about 200 U.K. citizens from Wuhan on a flight Thursday and said they would be put into quarantine for two weeks. British media said that quarantine would likely be at a military base.

The French health minister said that an initial flight carrying asymptomatic French citizens, a military aircraft with a medical team aboard, was leaving France on Wednesday night and expected to return Friday. Those aboard must undergo 14 days of confinement. A second flight for other French citizens and Europeans who wish to leave is planned, along with a special flight for the ill.

The minister said that a batch of European countries, from Germany to Spain, Denmark or Poland, have asked to be on the second yet-to-be-scheduled flight. She added that Mexico and Mauritius had asked to participate.

The official death toll from the virus rose Wednesday to 132, with confirmed infections jumping to nearly 6,000 cases, Chinese officials said. Scientists say they' are still many unanswered questions about the new virus, including how transmissible and severe it is.

In China's Hubei province, 17 cities including Wuhan have been locked down, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

The EU administration urged its staff to postpone non-essential travel to China and called an emergency meeting for health ministers from all 28 members to discuss the outbreak.

“We mustn’t underestimate the situation. We need to mobilize all our tools,” said European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

The Nordic region confirmed its first case Wednesday, a Chinese tourist in northern Finland, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare said. The 32-year-old woman was being treated at an isolation ward at hospital in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland.

In France, hospital officials held an emergency meeting after discovering that the 80-year-old Chinese tourist had been in contact with hospital personnel and other patients for three days before he tested positive for the virus.

The man initially had a fever but no signs of respiratory trouble, and is not from Wuhan but about 400 kilometers (240 miles) north, Dr. Yazdan Yazdanpanah, the infectious diseases chief at Bichat Hospital, told reporters Wednesday.

Because he “didn’t fulfill the definition” of someone at risk of having the virus, two hospitals decided it was unnecessary to test him, Yazdanpanah said.

“If we have to hospitalize all patients who have a fever and come from China, that’s dangerous for our hospital system in general,” the doctor said.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization's emergencies chief, said the human-to-human spread of the virus in three countries beyond China — Japan, Vietnam and Germany — is one of the reasons the U.N. health agency's expert committee would meet Thursday to determine whether the epidemic merits being declared an international emergency.

On the airline front, British Airways, Germany's Lufthansa and its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss said Wednesday they are halting flights to mainland China, joining several Asian carriers that are either suspending or significantly cutting back service there due to fears of spreading the virus and endangering the health of employees and passengers. Air France announced it was suspending flights to Wuhan “until further notice” and, due to decline in demand, limiting flights to Shanghai and Beijing to one daily.

German auto parts maker Webasto said Wednesday it has temporarily shut down its headquarters near Munich after four employees were confirmed to be infected with the new virus. The infections are believed to have occurred following contact with a Chinese employee who had traveled to Germany to lead a training session. The company said most of the 1,000 staff at its site in Stockdorf are working from home for the time being.

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the government to “be prepared” for dealing with a possible outbreak of the new virus, even though Russia has not had a confirmed case so far. Russia shares a long border with China and up to 2 million Chinese tourists visit Russia every year.

“It is a new phenomenon, and the question is how well we are prepared for this challenge,” Putin said Wednesday during a meeting with Cabinet members.

In sports, the Danish top-tier soccer club Aalborg Boldklub decided not to play a friendly against the Wuhan Zall club from the top Chinese league. They had been planning to meet up in Spain.

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Jill Lawless in London, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.