2 Japanese passengers of cruise ship die

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    TOKYO. — Two passengers from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship moored near Tokyo have died and 29 people were in a serious condition, Japanese media reported on Thursday, as a second group of passengers disembarked after two-weeks quarantined onboard.

    More than 620 of the passengers on the Diamond Princess liner have been infected on the ship, which has been quarantined since Feb. 3, initially with about 3,700 people on board.
    Public broadcaster NHK said the deceased passengers were an 87-year-old Japanese man and an 84-year-old Japanese woman.

    Kyodo news agency reported 29 people were in a serious condition, including one who had earlier tested negative for the virus. The health ministry could not immediately confirm the reports.

    Japan has well over half the known cases outside China due to the ship infections and the rapid spread of the virus and the quarantine operation has sparked criticism of authorities just months before Tokyo is due to host the Summer Olympics.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan’s efforts. He told a news conference that after measures were put in place to isolate passengers on Feb. 5, the number of new infections was now almost at zero. “In that sense, we believe the isolation was effective,” he said.

    Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) said in a report issued Wednesday that no new cases of the onset of the COVID-19 disease from the cruise ship were reported on Feb. 16-17 and only one crew member case on Feb. 15.

    In a move to reassure the public, the health ministry also issued a statement in both English and Japanese that said all passengers had been required to stay in their cabins since Feb. 5 to contain the virus. The day before, as passengers were being screened, ship events continued, including dances, quiz games and an exercise class.

    Criticism of the government has played out in social media as well as in parliament, where Health Minister Katsunobu Kato was grilled again on Thursday by an opposition lawmaker.
    About 500 passengers began disembarking on Thursday while another 100 people were to leave for chartered flights home, a health ministry official said.

    An initial batch of passengers who had tested negative and shown no symptoms left the vessel on Wednesday.

    Those who have shared a room with people testing positive were required to remain in quarantine, as were crew. The ministry could not confirm how many people remained on board, or when disembarkation would be complete.

    More than 150 Australian passengers arrived home after a pre-dawn departure from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. They face another 14-day quarantine.

    Some Hong Kong passengers also went home, while Canadians were due to leave on a charter flight in the early hours of Friday, a Canadian government spokeswoman said. An evacuation flight was also being arranged for British nationals to leave Tokyo on Friday.

    Earlier in the week, the United States evacuated more than 300 nationals on two chartered flights.

    A US State Department official said there were still about 45 US citizens on board the cruise ship as of Thursday.

    Americans flown back will have to complete another 14 days of quarantine, as will returning Hong Kong residents.

    Disembarked Japanese passengers, however, face no such restrictions, a decision that has sparked concern.

    The NIID said there should be no problem if people had shown no symptoms for 14 days and had tested negative for the virus during the period their health was under surveillance.

    Besides those on the cruise liner and returnees brought home from the epicenter of the epidemic Wuhan in China, about 70 cases of domestic infections have been confirmed in Japan, including 25 in Tokyo, public broadcaster NHK reported.

    FEARS FANNED

    SEOUL/BEIJING. – Scores of new coronavirus cases and a first death in South Korea fanned fears on Thursday of the global spread of the pathogen as research suggested it was more contagious than thought and China appealed to its Southeast Asian neighbors for solidarity.

    China, where the virus emerged in December, reported a sharp drop in new cases but the data was partly attributable to a change in how it diagnoses the virus and the figures could not quell growing alarm about its spread.

    As China cut interest rates to ease the pain for struggling businesses, concern about the impact of the coronavirus on the world’s second largest economy led to investors ditching everything from the Australian dollar to the Indian rupee to find safety in US dollar assets.

    “People are trying to get far away from the economic fallout that we might see from the coronavirus. You want your capital as far away from China as possible,” said Chris Weston, Melbourne-based head of research at broker Pepperstone.

    The coronavirus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, apparently in a wildlife market, and has now infected some 75,000 people and killed about 2,100.

    The vast majority of cases and deaths have been in China, and more specifically Hubei province, of which Wuhan is capital, but the global spread appears inexorable.

    South Korea confirmed its first death from the virus hours after the mayor of its fourth-largest city urged residents to stay indoors after a spike of more than 40 new infections, most traced to a church attended by a woman who tested positive.

    Malls and cinemas in the city of Daegu were empty and its usually bustling downtown streets were quiet in scenes one resident likened to a “disaster movie.”

    Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin asked the city’s 2.5 million residents to stay indoors as officials said at least 90 of more than 1,000 other people who attended the church were showing symptoms from what Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described as a “super-spreading event”.

    “We are in an unprecedented crisis,” Kwon told reporters, adding that all members of the church would be tested. “We’ve asked them to stay at home isolated from their families.”

    The situation was “very grave,”, South Korean Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said at a separate briefing.

    South Korea now has 104 confirmed cases of the flu-like virus.

    China called for solidarity in a special meeting in Laos to discuss the epidemic with Southeast Asian countries that have drawn billions of dollars in Chinese investment in recent years.

    “Fear is more threatening than the virus and confidence is more precious than gold,” Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a news conference afterwards.

    China’s Hubei province reported a drop in new infections after it stopped diagnosing people using chest X-rays and counted only those who tested positive for genetic traces of the coronavirus.

    The change in the method and in the data, China’s second in just over a week, has raised questions about the extent to which daily tallies accurately reflect the state of the outbreak.

    Hubei reported 349 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, down from 1,693 a day earlier and the lowest since Jan. 25. The death toll in the province rose by 108.

    Excluding Hubei, the number of new confirmed cases in mainland China fell for the 16th consecutive day to 45.

    While the numbers suggested a downward trend, scientists in China who studied nose and throat swabs from 18 patients say the virus could be more contagious than previously thought.

    The preliminary findings published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine show the virus behaves much more like influenza than other closely related viruses and can be passed on by people before they show symptoms.

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