German flagship airline Lufthansa announced on Wednesday that it would suspend all flights to and from mainland China until February 9, as the number of deaths from a coronavirus outbreak rose to 170.
The disease has infected over 7,000 people so far, most of them in the central Chinese province of Hubei. Dozens of cases have also been reported in more than 10 other countries, including Germany.
Lufthansa's decision also affects flights run by its subsidiaries Swiss and Austrian Airlines.
Each of the carriers will fly to their destinations in China "one last time" to give passengers and crew "the opportunity to return to Germany, Switzerland and Austria," Lufthansa group said in a statement, adding that flights to Hong Kong would continue.
The company, one of Europe's largest airline groups, usually operates 73 flights to and from mainland China each week.
Read more: Coronavirus: Everything you need to know
British Airways earlier announced that it would also halt all flights to and from mainland China, while American Airlines said it would not fly to Shanghai and Beijing from February 9 to March 27. Several Asian airlines have also suspended flights, including Indonesia's Lion Air Group, Air India and Seoul Air.
The rapid drop in business travel and tourism is expected to take a heavy toll on the world's second-biggest economy.
Four cases confirmed in Germany
The EU's health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, confirmed Wednesday that eight people infected with the virus were reported in the bloc — four of them in Germany and four in France.
Meanwhile, thousands of foreigners are believed to be among the millions of people stranded in Hubei's capital Wuhan, the outbreak's epicenter.
Japan and the US were the first to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan on Wednesday, while German authorities said they were finalizing plans to fly their nationals home soon. Britain said it would bring home 200 citizens on a charter plane on Thursday.
The European Commission said there were almost 600 EU citizens in China who had requested repatriation.
Read more: Coronavirus vaccine — a race against time
Health officials reported that all four infections in Germany were based in the southern state of Bavaria. The individuals were among a group of around 40 people from a car parts company who had come into contact with a Chinese colleague. The employee had traveled to Germany for a training session and only began experiencing coronavirus symptoms on the flight back to China.
The coronavirus, which can spread from person to person via droplets from coughs and sneezes, has an incubation time of between one and 14 days. Extended incubation times can be a problem in stopping the spread of viruses, as people can be contagious before realizing they are ill.
nm/msh (AFP, Reuters)