TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan on Friday vowed to step up testing and containment efforts for the coronavirus after suffering its first death and the confirmation of new cases, including a doctor and a taxi driver.
The biggest cluster of coronavirus infections outside China is on a cruise liner quarantined in a Japanese port, with 218 people on board 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.
A woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, west of Tokyo, became Japan's first fatality from the virus, the health ministry said on Thursday.
She had been transferred between hospitals as her condition worsened and was only confirmed as having the coronavirus after her death.
Her death brings to three the number of fatalities from the virus outside mainland China, where the virus emerged in the city of Wuhan in December and some 1,367 people have died. 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, with 33 in Japan as well as the 218 from the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which has been moored in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, since Feb. 3.
Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) soldiers work in front of the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 13, 2020. — Reuters pic
A Tokyo taxi driver, who Japanese media said was the woman's son-in-law, as well as a man in his 20s just east of Tokyo and a doctor in Wakayama, western Japan, were also confirmed to have the virus.
"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.
Officials in Wakayama later said a man who had been hospitalised at the hospital where the doctor worked had tested positive for the virus and was in serious condition, and that several other people were being observed.
GETTING OFF THE SHIP
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said there was no evidence the coronavirus was spreading widely in Japan, although he said that it might, and the government needed prepare for that.
But Hiroshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University School of Medicine, said the situation in Japan had entered a new stage.
"There's the chance that many people may have been infected by each of these people," Oshitani said, adding that he thought containing the virus may be impossible.
"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."
Unease about the virus in Japan is spreading on social media, with some sceptics saying the government's response resembled its reaction to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, when it took time for the true extent of the disaster to emerge.
"All their comments then were 'there's no immediate danger to health' now they're saying 'in an epidemiological sense' it's not spreading," wrote one with the handle Kanzu.
"They're trying to misrepresent it all."
The passengers who got off the Diamond Princess were taken away in several 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.
About 80% of the ship's passengers are 60 years old or older, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to media.
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, Linda Sieg and Chris Gallagher; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)
Source: The Star