by Barry Hatton, Associated Press | January 30, 2020

LISBON, Portugal (AP) - European countries on Thursday stepped up efforts to contain the virus infecting central China, sending a plane to evacuate hundreds of Europeans from the country and halting even more flights to China. Italian authorities kept some 7,000 people on a cruise ship while they checked for a possible infection.

Earlier this week, the United States chartered a plane to retrieve nearly 200 Americans in China. The flight departed Wuhan, the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China, and landed at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska. There are an estimated 1,000 Americans living in Wuhan, and the U.S. government reportedly gave priority to citizens who are "most at risk for contracting coronavirus." On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first human-to-human transmission of the in the U.S., as a woman in Chicago has infected her husband. There now are six confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country.

In Europe, an A380 plane took off from a former military airport at Beja, 120 miles southeast of Lisbon, carrying just its pilots and crew.

Captain Antonios Efthymiou said the flight was going first to Paris, to pick up a team of doctors and extra crew, before heading to Hanoi and then China. He told Portuguese media they would bring back about 350 Europeans. He said the crew would take special medical precautions but did not elaborate on them.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said the flight was coordinated between European Union countries and Chinese authorities. 

China has reported 170 deaths and at least 7,800 infections from the virus that emerged in the central city of Wuhan. More people have now been infected by this coronavirus in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic. Sports, transport and cultural events have been canceled across the country, and more than 50 million people are under a government lockdown in central China.

In Europe, there have been 10 confirmed cases of the virus: five in France, four in Germany and one in Finland.

Italian health authorities, meanwhile, were screening 6,000 passengers and 1,000 crew aboard a cruise ship docked north of Rome after a passenger from Macao came down with flu-like symptoms, officials said Thursday.

The Costa Crociere cruise line said the 54-year-old woman and her partner, who has no symptoms, were immediately put into isolation Wednesday and the case reported to Italian maritime authorities. Passengers of the Costa Smeralda were being kept on board Thursday pending checks to determine the type of virus. 

The ship had sailed from Mallorca, Spain, to Civitavecchia, Italy, on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise, but no passengers were allowed off for a planned walk in sunny Rome on Thursday.

"All the planned mechanisms were activated. Health authorities are on board, doing checks," Italian Coast Guard Cmdr. Vincenzo Leone said at the port of Civitavecchia. "The situation is under control. There's a security cordon on the dock."

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, announced it has stopped issuing visas to Chinese citizens due to the outbreak. More than 600,000 Chinese tourists are estimated to have visited the Czech Republic last year, especially its old-world capital city of Prague.

On the retail front, Swedish furniture and home goods retailer IKEA announced all its stores in mainland China would remain closed to protect its customers and staff from the outbreak. The stores are a favorite haunt of Chinese city dwellers both for shopping and for hanging out. 

Scandinavian Airlines announced it was halting all its flights to Beijing and Shanghai due to the virus beginning Friday until Feb. 9. SAS, which has 12 regular weekly flights from Scandinavia to China, said Thursday that "the safety of our passengers and employees is our highest priority."

Spain's Iberia national airline halted the three return flights a week it runs between Madrid and Shanghai because of the virus, a move it said would continue through the month of February.

Those announcements followed earlier moves to halt or reduce flights to China by other European airlines, including British Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Swiss, Air France and KLM.


Nicole Winfield in Rome, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Karel Janicek in Prague and Gianfranco Stara in Civitavecchia  contributed to this report.