TOKYO – At least 10 people on a cruise moored off the coast of Yokohama have tested positive for the new coronavirus, Japan’s Health Minister said on Wednesday (Feb 5).
They are among 31 people whose test results have come in, out of 273 people who have been screened so far, Mr Katsunobu Kato told a news conference.
There were 3,711 people on the Diamond Princess liner, comprising 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members from 56 countries and regions.
The 10 people who tested positive for the coronavirus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, consist of nine passengers – three Japanese, three Chinese, two Australians and one American – and a Filipino crew member.
The remaining people on board the ship will be kept under quarantine for 14 days. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Parliament that they “will not be allowed to come ashore for the time being” as a precautionary measure, adding: “Checking the health of the passengers and crew is our priority, while we will also do all possible to prevent any spread of the infection.”
A second cruise ship – the World Dream – was also quarantined off Hong Kong on Wednesday, with 3,600 passengers and crew members barred from leaving.
This came after three mainland Chinese travellers, who had been on board the ship from Jan 19 to 24, tested positive for the coronavirus. About 30 crew members have reported symptoms of cough and fever, and the ship was denied entry into Taiwan’s Kaoshiung port on Tuesday.
The cases exemplify fears of how the confined spaces of a cruise ship – where passengers intermingle in common areas – could well catalyse the spread of a virus.
In a previous case in Italy, 6,000 people were briefly isolated on board their vessel until two suspected cases of the new coronavirus tested negative.
The current lockdown of the Diamond Princess comes after a former passenger, a 80-year-old Hong Kong man, tested positive for the coronavirus after he disembarked from the ship.
He went to Shenzhen briefly on Jan 10 and returned to Hong Kong, from where he took a flight to Tokyo on Jan 17. He then boarded the cruise ship at Yokohama on Jan 20, which docked in Kagoshima in south-western Japan en route to Hong Kong, where he alighted on Jan 25.
The Diamond Princess returned to Yokohama on Monday via the ports of Chan May and Halong Bay in Vietnam, Keelung in Taiwan and Naha in Okinawa. Last year, there were 188 port calls by passenger cruise ships at the Port of Yokohama.
Japanese health officials are testing people on board the liner with symptoms such as fever or cough, as well as those who have been in close contact with sick patients. Not everyone would be screened with the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) kits for now.
All passengers are being confined in their rooms as a precaution, with meals delivered to their doors by crew members in protective gowns to minimise human contact. The ship would go farther out to sea briefly for marine operations such as freshwater production before returning near Yokohama for the resupply of food and provisions.
There are now 35 confirmed cases in Japan, including the 10 patients from the ship.
A planned state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan in early April may be postponed due to the outbreak, it emerged on Wednesday.
Still, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, who had criticised Washington on Monday, said Beijing was “deeply touched” by Japan’s response to the coronavirus fight, through donations of surgical masks, goggles and protective gear.
She said: “What the virus has done is cruel and will not last. What the people have done is touching and will be remembered forever.”
Japan, which has evacuated 565 Japanese citizens from Wuhan over three chartered flights last week, is readying a fourth that will leave Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Thursday to bring back 200 passengers, among them the Chinese spouses of Japanese nationals.