India gears to evacuate around 300 from Coronavirus-hit China, isolation wards in NCR on standby
Indians living in China’s Wuhan city and its surrounding provinces that are the epicentre of the novel coronavirus (NCoV-2019) outbreak, will be evacuated and brought to isolation wards set up by the Union defence and labour ministries, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, in Manesar and other parts of the National Capital Region, according to people familiar with the matter.
They added that the staff flying the two aircraft -- awaiting final clearances and expected to take off by Thursday -- will wear special protective gear and N95 masks to avoid contracting the highly contagious infection that has killed 132 people in mainland China and infected around 6,000 people in the country. At least 14 other countries around the world have already reported positive coronavirus cases.
India is expected to evacuate around 300 citizens, 200 of whom are medical students. However, only those with no symptoms will be allowed to leave China. There is no information from China to suggest that any of the Indians has been infected.
“Our priority is to evacuate students from Wuhan, and arrangements are being made accordingly as these students will need to be closely monitored and put under quarantine for a stipulated period. We have sought help from the ministries of Defence, Labour, and ITBP to put in place isolation facilities near Delhi,” said Preeti Sudan, secretary, Union ministry of health and family welfare.
“The ministry of external affairs will tell us the exact numbers of people there but on priority we are looking at evacuating 200 students. We are constantly following up with the India’s embassy in China to stay updated on the situation,” she added.
The defence ministry’s isolation facility near Manesar is used to quarantine peacekeeping troops returning from countries affected by highly contagious outbreaks such as Ebola. It will house most of the evacuees under a mandatory isolation period of at least 14 days, a defence ministry official said, asking not to be named.
While there are three people in isolation at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) hospital, the government wants to keep the quarantined patients at facilities, such as the one in Manesar, on the outskirts of the Capital. The reports of the three are awaited.
The Indian government has requested China for permission to operate two flights to bring back citizens, the ministry of external affairs spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, said in a tweet. In response to a question, China’s foreign ministry said it will provide necessary assistance if any country insists on evacuating its nationals, news agency PTI reported.
According to a statement released by the ministry of external affairs on Tuesday, Indians wishing to be evacuated “have to sign registration and consent notes sent out by the Indian embassy in Beijing that ask them to be prepared for a 14-day quarantine on their return”.
The statement added: “Indians will also have to undergo a medical check-up before leaving Wuhan, and those found with symptoms of the disease won’t be evacuated. They could also be quarantined in China if symptoms show up during the check.”
Health ministry officials said suspected cases will be observed for symptoms for up to 28 days. “As a precautionary measure, we are observing the high risk people for up to 28 days, which is double the incubation period,” said Lav Aggarwal, a joint secretary in the ministry.
Since January 18, India has tested 28 throat swabs of people with a travel history to China who developed symptoms of fever, cough and breathing difficulty. There have been no positive cases in India. Eleven other samples are being tested currently.
To test patients, swabs are taken from the back of the nose and mouth, and fluid is collected from the lungs with a bronchoscope for a culture test to look for the presence of a microbe. The DNA of the virus (if any) is matched against the published 2019-nCoV sequence released by China using special testing kits.
The department of health research, which is testing samples in its apex laboratory, the National Institute of Virology in Pune, has a capacity of testing at least 5,000 samples. “We have enough testing kits and are in the process of expanding the capacity. Four more labs have been designated to test samples which would be expanded to 10, if required,” said an Indian Council of Medical Research official who asked not to be named.
The thermal screening (measuring body temperature) of passengers began in 21 Indian airports from Wednesday -- up from seven airports that began on January 17. “It is the tourist season, and we have put screening in place at all busy airports. Hundred more thermal scanners have been procured, and are being distributed at all these airports. India is well prepared to handle any emergency,” said Sudan.
On Wednesday, Air India and IndiGo airlines suspended their operations to China -- following several other international airlines such as British Airways in doing so. “Keeping a suspected case under quarantine during an outbreak is what basic epidemiology rules suggest. If a large number of people are coming from an outbreak zone, then this is the best that can be done. If the virus is confirmed, the people will be managed, and if not then they get to go home after a particular period,” said a senior infectious disease expert, who did not wish to be named.
(Inputs from Rahul Singh and Rezaul H Laskar)