El Al stops China flights due to deadly virus outbreak

As coronavirus death toll hits 170, airline announces flights will only resume on March 25; services to Hong Kong continue as usual

Illustrative: An El Al airline plane at Ben Gurion International Airport on August 17, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: An El Al airline plane at Ben Gurion International Airport on August 17, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

EL AL said Thursday it was pausing its flights to China for a two-month period due to an outbreak of the coronavirus in the East Asian country which has killed 170 people and infected thousands of others.

“After a situations assessment this morning, El Al decided to pause its flights to China until March 25,” the company said in a statement.

Thursday’s flight from Beijing to Ben Gurion would go ahead as scheduled, the company clarified.

“We apologize to our clientele for the inconvenience,” El Al said.

People wearing face masks at the arrival hall of the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, January 28, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Other companies flying from Israel to China were continuing their services. Flights to Hong Kong, including those of El Al, were continuing as usual.

At the beginning of the week, Sichuan Airlines said it was temporarily stopping its twice weekly flights to Israel, Ynet reported.

Over 7,700 people in China have been diagnosed with coronavirus since the outbreak began in December, in the city of Wuhan.

The first cases in the Middle East were confirmed Wednesday, with a family of four from Wuhan who were visiting the United Arab Emirates. Airlines around the world announced they were cutting flights to China, and Hong Kong suspended rail travel to and from the mainland.

People queue up to buy face masks at a cosmetics shop in Hong Kong, January 30, 2020. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Also Wednesday, Israel’s Health Ministry said it was considering calling on Israelis who recently visited China to quarantine themselves.

The ministry said this would include asking those who traveled to China to avoid public areas for a few days after their return, even if they are healthy and have no signs of the virus.

The ministry also said it would examine current Israeli policy on travel to and from China.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry denied reports it was evacuating the families of Israeli diplomatic personnel from China.

Australia, New Zealand and Britain were among the latest countries to announce they are planning evacuations from Wuhan, which authorities have shut down to try to contain the virus. Chartered planes carrying about 200 evacuees each arrived in Japan and the United States early Wednesday, as other countries planned similar evacuations.

The new type of coronavirus first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December. It causes flu-like symptoms, such as cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, that are similar to many other illnesses. It is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

A security officer directs a man past a thermal imaging camera at a subway station in Beijing, January 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The death toll from the virus so far is still lower than the 348 people who were killed in China by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how transmissible and severe it is.

The World Health Organization urged governments around the globe, including those as yet unaffected by the novel coronavirus outbreak, to be “on alert” and “take action” to prevent its spread.

“The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, told reporters Wednesday in Geneva.

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