An A380 passenger plane left southern Portugal on Thursday en route to China where it will pick up hundreds of Europeans who want to escape the new virus that has put a large swath of central China in a lockdown.
The plane took off from a former military airport at Beja, 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Lisbon carrying just its pilots and crew.
Captain Antonios Efthymiou said the flight would go first to Paris, where it would pick up a team of doctors and extra crew, before heading to Hanoi and then China. He told Portuguese media it would bring back about 350 Europeans.
Efthymiou described the flight as “a humanitarian mission.” He said the crew would take special medical precautions, but he did not elaborate.
China has reported 170 deaths from the virus and at least 7,700 infections. More people have now been infected by this coronavirus in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.
In Europe, there have been 10 confirmed cases of the virus: five in France, four in Germany and one in Finland.
Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said the flight was coordinated between European Union countries and Chinese authorities. The flight, operated by Portuguese charter company Hi Fly, used the airport in Beja because it is the only one in Portugal big enough to handle the widebody aircraft.
Meanwhile, Spain’s Iberia national airline said it is halting the three return flights a week it runs between Madrid and Shanghai because of the coronavirus health alert. The company said the suspension would start Friday and continue through the month of February, although it could be extended.
That followed moves to halt or reduce flights to China by other European airlines, including British Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Swiss, Air France and KLM.