Australia confirms four cases of coronavirus, expects more cases

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia confirmed its first four cases of the new coronavirus in two different cities on Saturday, with the country’s chief health official saying he expected more cases as Australia was a popular destination for Chinese tourists.

Three men, aged 53, 43 and 35 were in a stable condition in Sydney’s Westmead hospital after they were confirmed to have the virus on Saturday after returning from China earlier this month, said the New South Wales state Health Minister Brad Hazzard.

Two of the men traveled to Sydney from the city of Wuhan, where the virus first appeared, and the third from China’s southeastern Shenzhen.

A Chinese national in his 50s, who had been in the city of Wuhan is in a stable condition in a Melbourne hospital after arriving from China on Jan. 19, Victoria health officials said.

The death toll from the virus in China rose to 41 on Saturday, with more than 1,300 infected globally, but most of the cases have been in Wuhan, where officials have imposed severe restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said that there might be more cases of coronavirus in Australia.

“There are other cases being tested each day, many of them are negative, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had further confirmed cases,” Murphy told a news conference earlier on Saturday.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement earlier on Saturday that it was “expected that Australia would see cases of the virus”.

Morrison said on Thursday that Australia had a national stockpile of over 10 million protective masks, but news of the virus spread quickly in Melbourne with many people rushing to pharmacies to buy masks.

“I have been to nine pharmacies already, they’re all out of them,” said a 22-year-old Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology student, who is originally from Shanghai and only gave her first name as June.

“And I need them, we all need them.”

Four pharmacies approached by Reuters in the Melbourne center on Saturday said they had sold out of masks. The masks have been in higher demand in recent weeks also due to bushfires that blanketed Melbourne and other cities in toxic haze.

The spike in demand comes even as some officials warn about the effectiveness of some masks.

“Face masks are not recommended for use by members of the public in Victoria for the prevention of infections like novel coronavirus,” Victoria health department said in a statement.

A pharmacist in Melbourne center who did not want to be identified said she sold all the “hundreds” of packages of masks she had on stock by midday Saturday.

She was charging A$29.99 ($20.50) for a packet of 10 of the “Cause I’m Happy” face masks, while the company selling them online charges A$10 for the same quantity.

“I took a gamble last week and bought out all the nearby pharmacies,” she said.

Australians were urged on Saturday not to travel to the Hubei province in China, with the government issuing its most severe travel advisory.

Australia is a popular destination for Chinese. It saw about 1.4 million short-term arrivals from China last year – the largest source of foreign visitors to the country.

Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry and Sam Holmes