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Japan cruise ship coronavirus cases climb to 175, including quarantine officer

TOKYO (Reuters) - Another 39 people have tested positive for the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan, with one quarantine officer also infected, bringing the total to 175, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

The Diamond Princess was placed in quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on Feb. 3, after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus.

The epidemic originated in mainland China, where more than 1,100 people have now died of the virus.

It is looking like an increasing economic threat for Japan, where manufacturers are reliant on Chinese companies for parts, and shops and hotels dependent on Chinese tourists.

About 3,700 people are on board the cruise ship, which usually has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670. Japan’s health ministry said tests were being conducted for others deemed to need them and it would announce the results later.

The British-flagged Diamond Princess is managed by Princess Cruise Lines, one of the world's largest cruise lines and a unit of Carnival Corp CCL.N.

Kyodo news agency, citing the health ministry, said that of the 39 cases, 10 were crew and 29 were passengers.

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Ten were Japanese nationals and the others were from 11 countries, including the United States and China. Four were in serious condition, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said.

People who test positive for the virus are taken off the ship to a hospital.

The quarantine officer who was infected had been handing out questionaires checking the health of passengers and crew since Feb. 3, and had been following rules that require the wearing of a mask and gloves but not a full protective suit, according to the Nikkei business daily, quoting the health ministry.


A health ministry official had no immediate comment, but Nikkei said the ministry was checking the officer’s contacts with colleagues and family members.

Mark Kortepeter, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said that although it was hard to reach conclusions based on limited information, the ship infections pointed to an “agent that is highly transmissible,” at least in enclosed environments.

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“The infected quarantine officer probably indicates the high risk, even for individuals who are trying to protect themselves, because the virus is unforgiving and there is no room for error in use of personal protective equipment and hand hygiene,” he said. “A small number of virus particles is likely needed to infect, making it an efficient spreader.”

The Japanese government has decided on a 500 billion yen ($4.5 billion) emergency package of loans and guarantees to help small businesses, particularly in tourism and smaller manufacturers, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

S&P Global Ratings said the outbreak would likely cause “damage” to operating performances of Japanese companies in the first half, especially automobile manufacturers that are likely to face a prolonged halt in plant operations in China.

“The impact might be harsh on Nissan Motor and Honda Motor,” the rating agency said in a note.

The government was considering allowing elderly and those with chronic illnesses to disembark from the Diamond Princess before the Feb. 19 target date for the end of quarantine, some media reported.

About 80% of the passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in the 90s, the Japan Times newspaper reported.

Japan has sent four chartered flights to China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, for its citizens there to return, and plans a fifth. The 197 people who returned on the first chartered flight were found to have tested negative, the health ministry said.

(INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Tracking the spread of the coronavirus from China - here)

Reporting by Chris Gallagher, Ju-min Park, Ami Miyazaki, Elaine Lies and David Dolan; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Coates, Kenneth Maxwell, Gerry Doyle and Raju Gopalakrishnan