Viral News

US to evacuate citizens from coronavirus-hit cruise ship

About 380 US citizens on quarantined Diamond Princess to be flown home from Japan

Quarantined passengers exercise on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.






Quarantined passengers exercise on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Hundreds of American passengers onboard a cruise liner quarantined in Japan due to the coronavirus outbreak will be flown home on chartered aircraft, the US embassy in Tokyo said on Saturday.

The aircraft is expected to arrive in Japan late on Sunday to fly the estimated 380 US citizens onboard the Diamond Princess to Travis air force base in California, where they will have to spend another fortnight in quarantine.

The embassy said in a letter to the passengers that they would have to undergo health checks before boarding the US government-chartered plane, adding that those showing symptoms such as a fever or cough would not be allowed on the flight.

The plane is expected to leave from Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Monday.

What is the virus causing the illness that started Wuhan?

The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere. As of 12 February there are now 45,182 confirmed cases and 1,115 deaths. There are cases in 28 other countries outside China, with deaths recorded in one case in Hong Kong, and one case in the Philippines. The number of people to have contracted the virus overall could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected.

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK has doubled from four to eight after four more people in Brighton were diagnosed with the infection over the weekend.

There are nine cases of the virus in the UK. Four were located in Brighton, one in London. At Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside 83 people in quarantine were told they would be allowed to leave on Thursday after they all tested negative. Of the 1,750 tests carried out so far in the UK, more than 99% had been negative.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

“Passengers will be screened for symptoms and we are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight,” the letter said.

“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time.”

It added: “We recognise this has been a stressful experience and we remain dedicated to providing all the support we can and seeing you safely and expeditiously reunited with family and friends in the United States,” the letter said.

The Diamond Princess’s 3,700 passengers and crew were placed in quarantine on 3 February after it emerged that a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong at the end of last month had tested positive for the virus.

So far, 218 people on the ship have tested positive for the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19 – the biggest cluster of cases outside China. The remaining passengers and crew must remain onboard at least until their two-week quarantine ends next Wednesday.

Matthew Smith, an American passenger, said he would prefer to see out the next few days of quarantine in his cabin than leave early and potentially spend another two weeks in isolation in the US.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

“Incredibly disappointed that the US government has decided to throw a monkey wrench into the quarantine we have maintained here on board the Diamond Princess. If we stay onboard through next week, we will be tested and will likely come up negative,” Smith tweeted on Saturday.

“But the US government instead wants to take us off without testing, fly us back to the US with a bunch of other untested people, and then stick us in two more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?”

Japan’s health ministry allowed 11 passengers to leave on Friday, giving priority to those aged over 80, and those who have pre-existing medical conditions or are staying in windowless cabins.

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