TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan on Friday vowed to step up testing and efforts to contain the spread of a new coronavirus after suffering its first death and finding new cases, including a doctor and at least one taxi driver, in different parts of the country.
People wearing masks queue to buy masks at a drugstore in Tokyo, Japan February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
The biggest cluster of coronavirus infections outside China is linked to a cruise liner quarantined in a Japanese port, with 218 people from the ship confirmed as infected and taken off to hospital.
On Friday, some of the ship’s passengers were allowed to disembark – with priority given to older passengers who have been confined to windowless cabins – to complete their quarantine on shore.
NHK public television said a woman taxi driver on the southern island of Okinawa had tested positive for the virus, and the chances were high she had contact with passengers from the ship during a Feb. 1 port call.
NHK also reported two new cases in Tokyo, both of whom had connections with a Tokyo taxi driver in his 70s whose infection was announced on Thursday. One of the new cases was a worker on a boat where the taxi driver held a party.
A doctor at a hospital in Wakayama prefecture, where confirmed cases were being treated, had also tested positive and was in serious condition.
“We will stay in touch with local governments and expand our testing procedures and treatment of patients in order to prevent the spread,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, a day after a task force on the disease drew up measures to deal with it, including spending 10.3 billion yen from budget reserves.
Japan recorded its first death from the virus, and the third outside mainland China, on Thursday when authorities said a woman in her 80s had died. She was only confirmed as having the coronavirus after her death.
The coronavirus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December and some 1,367 people have died, most in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is capital. One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
There are nearly 450 confirmed cases in some 24 countries and territories outside China.
Japan has confirmed 33 cases, as of noon on Friday, as well as the 218 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been moored in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, since Feb. 3.
‘SLOW THE SPREAD’
Despite the new cases, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said there was no evidence the coronavirus was spreading widely in Japan, although he said it might, and the government had to prepare.
But Hiroshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University School of Medicine, said the situation in Japan had entered a new stage.
“We can’t contain it but we can slow its spread. How to do that is the question, we can’t lock things down as they did in Wuhan,” Oshitani said.
Organizers of the Tokyo Summer Olympics dismissed fears the virus would force the cancellation of the Games.
“Advice that we have received externally from the WHO is that there is no case for any contingency plans of cancelling the Games or moving the Games,” John Coates, the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission chief, told reporters.
The Olympics are due to start on July 24.
Earlier, the first passengers left the Diamond Princess to be taken away in buses to complete their quarantine.
The alarm was first raised on the ship after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. Its quarantine is set to end on Feb. 19.
The ship, managed by Princess Cruise Lines and owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp, typically has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.
Additional reporting by Takashi Umekawa and Linda Sieg; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel