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Virus Outbreak Tied to London-Hanoi Flight Rattles Vietnam

John Boudreau and Nguyen Xuan Quynh

(Bloomberg) -- An outbreak of 13 coronavirus cases tied to a flight from London to Hanoi triggered hoarding in the Vietnamese capital, the lockdown of a central city neighborhood and the home quarantine of an investment minister aboard the aircraft.

A growing sense that the virus may be bypassing Vietnam, which hadn’t reported an official case in more than three weeks, was shattered after a 26-year-old Hanoi woman tested positive for the virus, the Ministry of Health announced Friday night. She had landed at Noi Bai International Airport on March 2 after visiting London, Milan and Paris.

The government immediately quarantined five acquaintances of the woman. Her uncle and family driver has tested positive for the virus, as did a 61-year-old man who, like the woman, sat in business class on the Vietnam Airlines flight, the ministry said. The government has quarantined 50 people at home and in hospitals who had close contact with the man.

Later on Sunday, the health ministry said nine more people, all foreigners, on the same flight were confirmed to have contracted the virus. Seven are British, one is Mexican and one is Icelandic.

Planning and Investment Minister Nguyen Chi Dung, who sat several rows from the woman, will self-quarantine at home for 14 days after testing negative for the virus. The minister’s headquarters were also disinfected, the government announced on its Facebook page.

Of the more than 200 passengers on the flight, 28 were in business class, according to the government. The flight’s crew and ground staff are also in isolation, according to the health ministry’s news website, Suc Khoe Doi Song. Thirty-two of the passengers transferred to flights to nine other cities in the country, including Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Phu Quoc.

Vietnam is notifying officials in Europe and elsewhere about the airline’s virus case and foreign passengers who were on board, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang. Vietnam’s national steering committee on coronavirus prevention is proposing temporarily halting visa exemptions for European Union and United Kingdom citizens.

The sudden spread of the virus unnerved Vietnamese, who rushed to supermarkets to buy rice, meat and other food across Hanoi over the weekend as police and members of the military quarantined the woman’s neighborhood, disinfecting streets in the wealthy enclave a few kilometers from the National Assembly.

The rush to stores triggered a surge in prices of pork -- the nation’s main source of protein -- among traders, from 300,000 dong ($12.93) per kilogram to 400,000 dong ($17.24) per kilogram, Saigon Giai Phong news website reported.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered government agencies to ensure food suppliers are kept markets well-stocked, according to a statement late Saturday. Officials will inspect markets to investigate possible price gouging. Phuc on Sunday directed top government officials to suspend business trips abroad and focus on the outbreak and boosting the economy.

Hanoi Party Chief Vuong Dinh Hue, speaking at a conference on Saturday, proposed canceling large gatherings such as festivals, and said he was worried about the virus spreading among shoppers waiting in long supermarket lines, Saigon Giai Phong reported.

Vietnam’s virus case tally is now at 30, with 16 having recovered, according to the health ministry.

(Updates story with proposal to suspend visa waivers in 7th paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: John Boudreau in Hanoi at jboudreau3@bloomberg.net;Nguyen Xuan Quynh in Hanoi at xnguyen20@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at sadam2@bloomberg.net, Allen Wan, Siraj Datoo

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