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North American airline stocks swoon on fear about virus outbreak in China

TORONTO — Shares of five North American airlines that fly to China, including Air Canada, fell on Tuesday as fear grew about a virus that authorities say has killed six people and sickened 300 more.

Investors seemed to worry that the virus could spread beyond Asia, like the SARS outbreak that started in 2002, which hurt travel between the U.S. and Asia.

Chinese authorities also confirmed that the virus can spread from one person to another, not just from animals to humans.

Shares of Air Canada closed lost 4.5 per cent after being down by as much as 6.8 per cent earlier in the day. Hawaiian Airlines' parent fell 5.5 per cent, United Airlines’ parent fell 4.4 per cent, American Airlines lost 4.2 per cent and Delta was off by 2.7 per cent.

Other stocks in the travel sector also took a hit Tuesday, including hotel chains like Marriott, which fell 3.9 per cent. Hilton was down 2.9 per cent and Wyndham slipped 1.5 per cent. Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean Cruises slid four per cent.

"We're obviously watching it carefully, it’s still way too early to talk about," Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson told CNBC Tuesday. "I think the Chinese authorities have got to make sure they understand what’s going on and we’ll have to watch and see what we learn from it."

The outbreak is believed to have started in Wuhan in central China. None of the U.S. airlines fly to Wuhan, but their Chinese partner airlines do, and some passengers do transfer from a Chinese carrier to an American one.

Fear about the virus increased just as millions of Chinese prepared to travel for the lunar New Year holiday, which starts Saturday. Cases have also been confirmed in Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

— With files from The Associated Press.

The Canadian Press