TOKYO - Japan is bracing for the coronavirus outbreak to worsen, as Health Minister Katsunobu Kato on Sunday (Feb 16) pointed to several untraceable cases and an emergency government meeting of experts noted that the onset is likely only "at an early stage".
This comes as Japan is already facing a headache over the Diamond Princess cruise liner, off Yokohama. Another 70 cases were confirmed on Sunday, bringing the total infected on the ship to 355 as governments began making plans to evacuate their nationals marooned on the vessel.
On land, the number of infections has more than doubled since Thursday from 29 to 59 on Sunday night. Experts urged measures on the basis of wide human-to-human transmission.
"We are now in a new phase and must anticipate a spread of infections. Our priority is to build up the medical system so that people, especially those with pre-existing conditions, will not fall gravely ill and die," Mr Kato said.
World Health Organisation flu expert Nikki Shindo was quoted as saying by the Nikkei: "Besides China, Japan is the only country where there have been infection cases of which transmission routes cannot be traced."
This comes as new cases have been confirmed from Hokkaido to Okinawa since Thursday. At least four have left authorities bewildered over how, or where, they might have been infected.
They are a Wakayama surgeon, who has since been linked to four other cases, a Chiba man in his 20s, a Hokkaido man in his 50s, and a Nagoya man in his 60s who fell sick after returning from holiday in Hawaii.
The growing cluster of cases around Tokyo has likewise raised concerns, as among them are at least seven taxi drivers.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, already under heat for a series of domestic scandals, is facing mounting pressure to keep a lid on the outbreak as questions arise if he has acted aggressively enough to control the situation.
A Kyodo News weekend poll showed Cabinet support at 41 per cent, down 8.3 points from last month, while the disapproval rating soared 9.4 points to 46.1 per cent.
Japan's ability to respond to the new coronavirus - with limited testing kits, manpower and facilities - has also been severely constrained by the Diamond Princess, where nearly 10 per cent of the 3,711 people on the ship manifest are infected.
Of the 355 confirmed cases, out of 1,219 test results, 111 are asymptomatic.
Though the ship's quarantine is due to end this Wednesday, the swelling numbers of infected has led some governments to question if keeping their citizens on board is the best option.
While the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had said on Feb 8 that "remaining in your room on the ship is the safest option to minimise your risk of infection", it now cites the "dynamic nature of the outbreak" in suggesting that the estimated 400 Americans on board take a chartered flight home, where they face another 14-day quarantine.
Other than the US, whose chartered flight was due to land on Sunday night, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan are among those that are arranging, or considering, evacuation of their citizens.
But the US' attempts to bring home its citizens on another ship, the MS Westerdam, were complicated on Sunday after an 83-year-old American woman tested positive twice. The vessel was allowed to dock in Cambodia on Thursday, with passengers to be ferried home from Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur.
But Malaysia said on Sunday that it would not let any more passengers enter the country and cancelled three US chartered flights.