Nearly 500 Chinese tourists in PH to be flown back to Wuhan

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 24) – Close to 500 Chinese tourists who arrived in Kalibo, Aklan from the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus outbreak began, will be transported back to their point of origin this week, an aviation official confirmed Friday.

Civil Aviation Board Executive Director Carmelo Arcilla said that air carriers Royal Air Charter and Pan Pacific Airline will ferry the visitors back to Wuhan in three batches: Friday night, Saturday and Monday. The planes will then return to Kalibo without passengers. That's despite the transport clampdown in Wuhan, where the new virus called 2019-nCoV originated.

Pan Pacific operates charter flights on the Wuhan-Kalibo route Tuesdays to Sundays while Royal Air on Mondays to Saturdays. Those flights have since been suspended except for the three “ferry flights” to bring home the nearly 500 tourists from Kalibo.

Three cities in central China, including Wuhan, the city of 11 million people, are under lockdown, as Chinese authorities race to contain a deadly virus that has reached parts Asia and the United States. CNN reported that at least 26 people have died and 830 others infected in China as of Friday.

Arcilla said the airlines have the clearance to repatriate the foreigners because they are Wuhan residents.

Wyrlou Samodio, CAB's chief legal officer, said the tourists' return to China were based on the decision of the two charter companies, who coordinated with Wuhan authorities, and the Philippine aviation board's directive to suspend flights to and from that Chinese city.

He said some of the tourists were already due to return home, while others had to cut short or could not extend their trips because of the suspension of flights to Wuhan.

Among them are the 135 foreigners who flew in Thursday, hours before Philippine authorities announced that as a precautionary measure, it will suspend flights to and from Wuhan, Aklan Provincial Health Officer Cornelio Cuachon said Friday.

None of them was quarantined and referred for hospital care as they did not show the red flag symptoms of the 2019-nCoV such as fever. 

But Arcilla said that strict health screenings in airports across the country since January 5 are not a "guarantee" that the new coronavirus will not enter the country.

He added the incubation period of the new respiratory virus, which is still undetermined, needs to be considered. After that period, the infected person usually would have fever, cough and colds, breathing difficulties, shortness of breath.

Arcilla said international passengers, especially those from China, were advised to see a doctor in case they feel they got the flu or another respiratory disease.

Travel ban sought

Senator Risa Hontiveros said Philippine authorities should consider a month-long travel ban for any person who "came from or have passed through" Wuhan to prevent the spread of the deadly disease into the country.

"In addition, authorities must place residents of Wuhan presently in the country and those with flu-like symptoms who have traveled through China in the past 14 days under health surveillance," she said in a statement.

The measure is an extra precaution on top of the Philippine government's decision to suspend all flights coming from the Chinese city where the disease originated.

A 5-year-old boy who flew from Wuhan to Kalibo, Aklan tested positive for an unidentified coronavirus earlier this week, but eventually tested negative in a subsequent test done by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. His samples have been sent to a laboratory in Australia for tests to confirm if he has 2019-nCov.

'No public health emergency yet'

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization declared that the Wuhan coronavirus, which has sparked widespread fears of a deadly pandemic, is not yet a public health emergency of international concern. 

WHO defines a public health emergency of international concern as "an extraordinary event" constituting a "public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response."

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more serious diseases such as such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, according to the World Health Organization. They can be transmitted between animal and human or from infected human to another human, WHO said.