Japanese authorities are racing to contain a possible outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus after it was revealed that an infected passenger flew into Tokyo and spent a few days aboard a Princess Cruises ship, forcing authorities to lock down the vessel and quarantine thousands of people on board.
The ship, the Diamond Princess, ended its planned 14-day itinerary early and is currently docked off the coast of Yokohama, not far from the Japanese capital. Medical officials are going room-by-room to check each guests’ temperature and medical condition, Japan’s health ministry said in a statement. Several passengers have reported feeling ill, and the tests to check if they contracted the virus will take four to five hours, the ministry said.
Passengers and crew will now be required to stay on board until at least Tuesday night.
There are 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew members on board, Princess Cruises said in a statement.
Japan has previously reported 20 cases of the novel coronavirus, all unrelated to the cruise.
Though Japanese officials have moved quickly to respond to this case, it has renewed concern about just how easy it could be for one patient who is unwittingly carrying the virus to pass it on in an increasingly globalized world where millions of people travel at ease.
Health authorities say patients can be infectious even if they are not presenting symptoms. The incubation period is believed to be about 14 days. However, researchers are still working to determine whether the Wuhan coronavirus can spread via what’s known as the fecal-oral route, an important factor in determining just how infections the virus is, said Dr. John Nicholls, a clinical professor in pathology at the University of Hong Kong.
However, Nicholls cautioned against panic because there are just too many unknowns surrounding the Wuhan coronavirus and this case to determine how widely one individual could spread the virus.
“These days, you can fly anywhere, so there’s going to be more chance that isolated cases my come up in other countries,” Nicholls said. “At this stage there’s no evidence of wide spreading in other communities.”
The man who tested positive for the virus is an 80-year-old from Hong Kong, the semiautonomous Chinese city said in a statement. The infected patient had not been to healthcare facilities or seafood markets, nor had he had exposure to wild animals during his incubation period — meaning he likely contracted the virus from another human. The man visited mainland China for “a few hours” on January 10, the statement said.
The man flew into Tokyo — the world’s most populous city — on January 17 with his two daughters, and two days later said he began developing a cough, Hong Kong authorities said. He boarded the cruise in Yokohama on January 20, and when it stopped back in Hong Kong on January 25, part of its pre-planned itinerary, he got off and never returned. He sought medical attention on January 30 and was diagnosed with the virus shortly after. He is currently in a stable condition.
Princess Cruises, which is owned by the Miami and London-headquartered Carnival Corporation, said in its statement that the man did not visit the ship’s medical center.
It’s also unclear how many passengers may have disembarked early. The Japanese health ministry said it is tracing people who may have disembarked in Okinawa, the cruise’s second-to-last stop. The ministry is also investigating the infected patient’s movements during his time in Japan but must rely on authorities in Hong Kong for information since the patient is there, authorities said.
Cruise lines are more at risk of the spread of any virus because the vessels have so many people living in such close quarters. Eight international cruise liners reported outbreaks of norovirus — a contagious stomach bug that causes vomiting and diarrhea — in 2019, according to the CDC. Norovirus can be transmitted the fecal-oral route.
Some 6,000 passengers on a cruise ship in Italy were quarantined last week after two guests were suspected of having the Wuhan coronavirus. Italy’s health ministry said tests revealed the duo had a different flu virus, not the coronavirus that has spread through China.
Several cruise lines have announced measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. Princess Cruises and Carnival Cruises have all enacted controls barring guests from ships if they have travelled from or through mainland China in the 14 days prior to the departure date of the cruise. Royal Caribbean took similar action, but extended the date to 15 days and also included Hong Kong as well as mainland China.