Russia sets up Siberia quarantine to prepare for potential virus spread

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday it was preparing for the potential spread of China’s coronavirus as authorities closed schools and cancelled public events in some regions, though officials attributed that simply to flu.

Russia has a 4,300 km (2,670-mile) land border with China and last week reported its first two cases of coronavirus in Siberia. Both involve Chinese nationals.

Moscow has restricted border crossings from China, suspended direct passenger trains and commercial flights, except for some that are being routed through a separate terminal at a Moscow airport to make screening passengers easier.

The government has also granted authorities enhanced powers to deport any foreigners who contract the virus.

“We are preparing ourselves for a possible wide spread of the infection,” Deputy Health Minister Sergei Krayevoy said, according to the Interfax news agency.

The virus has killed more than 420 people and infected more than 20,000, nearly all inside China, although cases have been recorded in 23 other countries and regions, and there have been two deaths in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Two Russian military planes were due to help evacuate 130 Russians stranded at the epicentre of the outbreak in China’s Hubei province, officials said.

Authorities are setting up a quarantine area in Siberia’s Tyumen region, where those evacuated will be held under observation for 14 days, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said.

Russia’s consumer health watchdog has told people to wear medical masks on public transport and to change them regularly, but authorities in Russia’s Far East said a sudden spike in demand for masks was threatening to create shortages.

“Don’t buy masses of medical masks,” the Primorsk region’s government wrote on social media, adding that the next big delivery of masks was not expected until Feb. 14.

In St Petersburg, the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre postponed a Feb. 11 performance by a Chinese national opera and dance troupe until a “more favourable time when listeners can enjoy the music without worrying unnecessarily”.

At least two regions - Ulyanovsk and nearby Samara on the Volga river around 900 km (560 miles) east of Moscow - have closed schools until the end of the week because of seasonal flu cases that officials said were not linked to coronavirus.

All large public events in Ulyanovsk have also been cancelled, the regional government said. No coronavirus cases have been reported in either region.

“All countries in the world want to show that they can control this situation, so they’re all trying to do their best,” said Alexei Zhdanov, who flew into Moscow from Beijing wearing a mask.

Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gleb Stolyarov, Tom Balmforth, Lev Sergeev; additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-FarberWriting by Katya Golubkova/Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alex Richardson