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OTTAWA -- A charter plane headed for Canada carrying 176 people fleeing the centre of the global novel coronavirus outbreak has begun its journey.
"The plane is wheels up," Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Thursday afternoon after the evacuation flight organized by the federal government departed from Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the outbreak originated.
The flight is slated to stop for refuelling in Vancouver before heading to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, where it is expected early Friday.
All evacuees will spend 14 days under quarantine on the military base in southern Ontario being monitored to see if they have contracted the virus.
Canadian health authorities have documented five cases of the new coronavirus in Canada so far, and say the quarantine is necessary to ensure the virus doesn't spread further.
About 50 more Canadians were expected to leave China on a United States government flight scheduled to depart shortly after.
The American plane will take Canada-bound passengers as far as Vancouver, where they will transfer to a second flight chartered by the Canadian government to Canadian Forces Base Trenton to join the rest of the evacuees.
"About two-thirds of Canadians seeking to leave Wuhan will have left for Canada," Champagne said of the Canadian and American flights.
The federal government has also chartered another flight next week.
Champagne said that flight is scheduled to leave Wuhan, a city of 11 million people under quarantine, on Feb. 10.
"I think it's a good thing because everybody who wants to depart will have a third chance to come back to Canada," Champagne said at a press conference Thursday in Ottawa.
The government had space for 211 passengers on the first flight. Along with Canadian citizens, officials said 13 permanent residents and six Chinese nationals with Canadian visas were allowed to escort the 34 Canadian minors returning home.
Champagne said only 176 in total boarded the plane.
"As expected, we had a small number of no-shows at the airport, mostly related to individuals who changed their minds at the last minute," he said.
More than 300 people have asked for Ottawa's help getting out of the city.
Champagne said anyone who decided to stay behind would continue to receive consular assistance.
Consular services have also been offered to two Canadians in Japan who contracted the virus on a cruise ship quarantined in the port city of Yokohama, just outside Tokyo.
The Diamond Princess is carrying 1,045 crew and 2,666 guests, including 251 Canadians. About 20 people have contracted the virus so far. The two Canadians who tested positive were transferred to local health facilities in Japan.
Unlike those returning home from Wuhan, once the Canadians on board the cruise ship are released from quarantine in Japan they will not be required to go through another period of isolation, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said.
The new coronavirus has sickened more than 28,000 and killed 563 in China since the outbreak was first reported to the World Health Organization in December.