About 150 Australians are understood to have registered for seats, reflecting  what Prime Minister Scott Morrison called “very strong interest” from citizens and permanent residents there.
Foreign affairs officials were locked in negotiations with Chinese authorities on Friday about the timing of the flight. Health Minister Greg Hunt welcomed “significant progress” in the discussions and said the first members of a specialist medical assistance team had arrived on Christmas Island, where evacuees would be taken.
A team of 24 will help care for evacuees during a 14-day mandatory quarantine period, completing pre-deployment and logistical tasks before arrivals next week, via shuttle flights from Darwin.
Investment bank UBS said the fallout from the travel restrictions put in place by Beijing could cost the Australian economy at least $1 billion in lost service exports, and the damage would grow the longer the crisis continued.
The number of confirmed Australian domestic cases has risen to nine, all of which are considered relatively mild, and two patients have been discharged from hospital in NSW.
That state has four confirmed cases three in Victoria and two in Queensland.
Passengers who boarded a Tiger Airways flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast on January 27 were being contacted after two Chinese nationals in a tour group were confirmed as coronavirus cases.
Queensland Health authorities were contacting those on the 171-passenger flight and the plane had been taken out of service as a precautionary measure and would undergo additional cleaning.
Also on Friday, the CSIRO confirmed it had begun research on the virus at a high-containment facility in Geelong, a potential first step towards testing of vaccines.
The international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations tasked the federal science agency with studying how long the virus took to develop and replicate, how it affected the body’s respiratory system, and how transmission took place.
Researchers at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity this week became the first scientists outside China to recreate the virus in a lab setting.
Australian citizens trapped in Wuhan told AFR Weekend they were not confident about the planned evacuation flight, as a transport lockdown in the city would make it almost impossible to travel to the airport. They also said China would not allow those who did not enter the country on their Australian passport to join the flight.
“The main obstacle is the lack of transport. We can’t get a car or a driver to get to the airport,” said Melbourne photographer Moko Yong, who is in Wuhan.
“Some of the people are outside of Wuhan, which has literally been locked down, so they can’t get in. I’m not optimistic about the plan to leave China. I don’t think the Australian government can solve this problem.”
With the rapid increase in infections over the past week, scientists and governments are rushing to find ways to contain the spread of the virus, which was virtually unknown three weeks ago.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after declaring a global emergency.
Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”
Responding to the WHO move, China’s Foreign Ministry said the country had taken control measures that “go well beyond” international requirements. “We have full confidence and capability to win this fight against the epidemic,” an official said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a public health expert at Londons Imperial Colleges, estimates that there are already 100,000 cases of the coronavirus.
There was growing anxiety in China, where the country of 1.4 billion is in a virtual lockdown. Schools, factories and businesses in most big cities will be closed for at least two more weeks as the Communist Party steps up measures to contain the virus.
The province of Hubei, where the virus originated, remained in lockdown while residents in mega-cities such as Shanghai and Beijing voluntarily stayed at home.
Authorities on Friday said the death toll had risen to 213, with 9692 confirmed cases and 15,238 suspected cases. The virus has spread to every region in mainland China, and Hong Kong and Macau, but most cases were still in Hubei.
As Australia and the United Kingdom prepared to evacuate their citizens from the quarantine zone in Wuhan, China said it was also organising charter flights for some of its citizens from Wuhan who were overseas and wanted to return home.
Flights between China and Australia have not been disrupted so far, except for China Eastern’s direct flights to Wuhan, which have been cancelled. Qantas could decide to cancel flights for commercial reasons if it felt passengers or crew were at risk.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said no ban on incoming flights from China was yet necessary. The WHO strongly recommends against banning flights as the move is considered ineffective in stopping travel through other ports.
Ren Zeping, the chief economist for property developer China Evergrande Group, said the country’s GDP growth could fall below 6 per cent this year and below 5 per cent in the first quarter.