France on Thursday will send a plane to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of a coronavirus scare, in the first repatriations by a European country.
Some 500 to 1,000 French citizens are eligible for repatriation, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn told a press conference, though not all are keen to be pulled out from the zone as authorities said the virus has infected thousands and killed 106 so far.
The first plane will likely return to France late Friday or early Saturday, Buzyn said. Those on it will be brought to a holding facility in Paris, where they will stay for 14 days — the estimated virus incubation period — to ensure they do not carry the virus and cannot pass it on to others.
Those displaying symptoms, which are similar to the flu and include a fever, will be hospitalised immediately.
Deputy transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told CNews television the flight would bring only passengers "who do not have any symptoms" of illness.
A second plane to bring home "people who may be carrying the virus" is planned but no date has yet been set, he said.
"Several planes will follow," added Buzyn, so as not to mix potentially infected people with healthy ones on the same flight.
The Chinese government has sealed off Wuhan and neighbouring cities, effectively trapping tens of millions of people, including thousands of foreigners, in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.
'Won't close the doors'
France was the first European country to report imported cases of the new coronavirus, in three people who had recently been in China, while a half- dozen suspected infections are being analysed.
On Tuesday, officials said a German man, who has not been to China, was infected with the virus by a colleague visiting Bavaria from China, in what is believed to be the first human transmission on European soil.
Buzyn said several European countries had asked France to bring their nationals home on its planes.
"The ministry of foreign affairs is in charge of working with these different countries to determine how we share the repatriation of all European nationals," she said.
"Obviously, we won't close the doors of our planes to foreign nationals if they request it and if we have the possibility" to help them, Buzyn added.
Among the French in Wuhan, some may not be keen on leaving, however.
"Some have family members who are not necessarily French nationals, so it is necessary to know if they want to return, and if the Chinese government accepts it," Buzyn said.
"All of this is being discussed with the Chinese authorities."
Others are put off by the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.