World scrambles to curb fast-spreading coronavirus

By Colin Packham and Parisa Hafezi

SYDNEY/DUBAI (Reuters) – The coronavirus’ rapid spread in Iran, Italy, South Korea and elsewhere left alarmed governments and people across the globe rushing on Thursday to implement emergency measures.

For the first time, new infections around the world in the past 24 hours surpassed those in mainland China, where the flu-like disease emerged two months ago but is on the decline after an aggressive containment campaign.

In Japan, where cases rose to 200, there was particular concern after a female tour bus guide tested positive for a second time – one of very few worldwide to do so.

Tokyo has halted big gatherings and sports events for two weeks, and is closing schools early for the spring break. But it still plans to go ahead with the 2020 Olympics, whose cancellation or relocation would be a massive blow for Japan.

The coronavirus has mainly battered China, causing 78,596 cases and 2,746 deaths. But it has spread to another 44 countries with 3,246 cases and 51 deaths reported.

Though meeting the dictionary definition of a pandemic – widespread contagion across a large region – the World Health Organization (WHO) has so far held back from using that term.

“There is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as he ordered hospitals to ensure sufficient medical supplies, protective gear and staff.

U.S. President Donald Trump put his vice president, Mike Pence, in charge of America’s response, while France’s President Emmanuel Macron rallied the nation.

“We have a crisis before us. An epidemic is on its way,” Macron said at a Paris hospital where a 60-year-old Frenchman this week became the second person to die from the coronavirus in France.

(Live blog: Online site for coronavirus news – https://www.reuters.com/live-events/coronavirus-6-id2921484)

MARKETS DOWN FOR SIXTH DAY

Spooked by the impact on China, the world’s second-biggest economy and the heart of corporate supply chains, and the increasing effect on other countries, stock markets sank deeper into the red and oil prices fell

Global markets have dropped for six straight days, wiping out more than $3.6 trillion in value.

A rash of countries have had their first cases in recent days, the latest being Denmark with a man back from a ski holiday in Italy, and Estonia with someone returning from Iran.

There is no cure for the virus that can lead to pneumonia, and a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop.

New cases in South Korea took its total to 1,261 with 12 deaths, while Europe’s hotspot Italy had 453 infections and 12 deaths, and Iran reported 245 cases and 26 fatalities.

Urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, Tehran extended its closure of cinemas, cultural events and conferences for another week. Iran’s outbreak has added to the isolation of a nation already under U.S. sanctions.

The coronavirus has played havoc with global aviation and tourism as airlines cancel flights, countries ban visitors from hot spots and nervous passengers put off travel.

News that a Korean Air flight attendant who worked on flights between Seoul and Los Angeles later tested positive was likely to unnerve passengers further.

The United States is managing 59 cases – most of them Americans repatriated from a cruise ship quarantined in Japan where almost 700 cases developed. But Trump said the risk was “very low” in the United States which was “very, very ready”.

Chinese authorities said the number of new deaths stood at 29 on Thursday, its lowest daily tally since Jan. 28. There were just 433 new cases in mainland China in the last 24 hours, compared to 586 in nations and territories elsewhere.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html in an external browser)

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Daniel Leussink in Tokyo, Parisa Hafez in Dubai, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Germany ‘heading for epidemic’ as virus spreads faster outside China

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany said on Wednesday that it was heading for a coronavirus epidemic and could no longer trace all cases, as the number of new infections inside China – the source of the outbreak – was for the first time overtaken by those elsewhere.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new disease – COVID-19 – also hit Pakistan, Greece and Algeria. Global food conglomerate Nestle suspended all business travel until March 15.

Stock markets across the world lost $3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the MSCI all-country index, but on Wednesday Wall Street led something of a rebound.

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases so far, have said a global pandemic is likely, but President Donald Trump accused two cable TV channels that frequently criticise him of “doing everything possible to make (the coronavirus) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets”.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped to slow the rate of transmission in China, elsewhere it is accelerating.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection, and Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

“Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also spoken on Tuesday of a nascent pandemic. “It’s not a question of ‘if’. It’s a question of ‘when’ and how many people will be infected,” said its principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat.

‘PANDEMIC’ – OR NOT?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said China had reported 411 new cases on Tuesday – against the 427 logged in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva:

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready … This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Trump tweeted that he would attend a briefing on Wednesday. But the White House denied a report by the Politico outlet that it was considering appointing a “coronavirus czar”.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after measures that included isolating Hubei province.

China’s National Health Commission reported 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

FEARS FOR OLYMPICS

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a Christian church at the centre of the outbreak.

Brazil reported the first case in Latin America, a source said on Wednesday – a 61-year-old who had visited Italy.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has nearly 170 cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined off its coast this month. Six people have died there, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2% seen elsewhere suggest that the true number of cases in Iran must be many times higher, and cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, were locked down over cases linked to Italy.

Authorities said the more than 700 guests at Tenerife’s four-star Costa Adeje Palace could leave their rooms after a day of confinement but would have to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old Briton Lara Pennington, fearing for her two young sons and her elderly in-laws.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavey in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Pravin Char and John Stonestreet)

Trump returns to U.S. as country warily eyes spread of coronavirus

By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump returned to Washington on Wednesday to face increasing concerns over the coronavirus as U.S. public health officials warned Americans to prepare for a possible outbreak and financial markets remained on edge.

Trump, back from a 2-day visit to India, said on Twitter that he would meet with U.S. officials for a briefing on the coronavirus later on Wednesday and hold a news conference.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases who will brief the president, said while the virus is contained in the United States, Americans need to get ready for a potential outbreak.

As person-to-person transmissions spread in other countries outside of China, including South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran, the coronavirus is likely to spread further, he said.

“Things are stable here … and at the same time we need to be ready to do things to contain an outbreak if it were to occur, Fauci told CNN in an interview.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a shift, on Tuesday said the virus’ march across the globe had raised concern about community spread in the United States, even as it remained unclear if and when that might happen, or how severe it might be.

The Republican president has been largely out of Washington since Feb. 18, first visiting a string of western U.S. states before heading off to India.

During his travels, he praised U.S. health officials while publicly downplaying the possible spread of the virus and its impact on financial markets, saying he hopes it will disappear with the arrival of warmer spring weather in the United States.

Trump has been increasingly alarmed at the drop in the stock market, which he considers a key barometer of economic health.

He has repeatedly touted his administration’s decision to bar foreign travelers who had been to China within the virus’ 14-day incubation period and to funnel flights from China to specific airports for screenings.

CDC officials, who Trump said would be at the 6 p.m. (2300 GMT) White House news conference, have advised Americans to not visit China and South Korea, and to exercise caution when traveling to Japan, Italy or Iran.

The CDC is also considering expanding airport screenings to target passengers from countries that have seen a recent spike in cases such as Italy and South Korea, NBC News reported, citing the agency.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking $2.5 billion from Congress to boost its virus response, but Democrats have warned that amount falls far short of what is needed.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers grilled two top Trump officials – Health Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf – about the nation’s readiness on Tuesday. House lawmakers will also hear from Fauci, Azar and other officials at a budget hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Trump’s request also included $1 billion for a vaccine, something Fauci told CNN was in development but would take at least 18 months “at best” to come to market.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Two passengers from coronavirus-hit cruise ship in Japan die, authorities defend quarantine

By Linda Sieg and Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) – Two elderly passengers became the first people from aboard a cruise ship moored near Tokyo to die of the coronavirus, the Japanese government said on Thursday, as hundreds more passengers disembarked after two weeks’ quarantine.

The 621 coronavirus cases aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner are by far the largest cluster of infection outside China. The ship has been held since Feb. 3 with initially 3,700 people on board.

The two patients who died, an 87-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman, had both tested positive for the virus although the woman’s cause of death was listed as pneumonia, the health ministry said. Two government officials who had worked on the ship were infected, it added, bringing the number of infected officials to five.

Public broadcaster NHK reported that 27 people from the ship were in serious condition.

The quarantine operation has sparked criticism of Japan’s 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 fell.

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. Critics have noted that the day before that order, as passengers were being screened, shipboard events continued, including dances and quiz games.

SAFE TO GO HOME?

About 1,000 Japanese released from the ship after testing negative for the virus were permitted to go straight home this week. Other countries are flying their citizens home but subjecting them to two more weeks of quarantine on arrival.

“We believe the isolation was effective,” Suga, the chief cabinet minister, said.

Those who have shared a room with infected people are being kept on board under further quarantine.

Around 600 people are expected to disembark on Thursday, 500 of whom will return to their homes in Japan, according to the health ministry. On Wednesday, 800 people left the ship including foreigners who left on evacuation flights.

“We are asking people to keep an eye on their temperature at home,” a health ministry official told Reuters. The government handed out pamphlets with advice on the disease, which has killed more than 2,100 people, mostly in China.

Some experts, however, worry returnees could infect others. Findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday suggest the virus may be spread more easily than previously thought, including by carriers who have no symptoms.

The health ministry official said the United States had taken the decision to risk bringing home infected passengers, and it was up to each country to quarantine people entering their ports as appropriate.

“Our stance is that Japan as the local authority has already quarantined these people for two weeks,” the official said, adding that if people sent home from the Diamond Princess later test positive, they would have caught the virus off the ship.

(Additional reporting by Akiko Okamoto, Ju-min Park, Hideto Sakai, Daewong Kim, Elaine Lies, Makiko Yamazaki and Tim Kelly; writing by Linda Sieg and David Dolan; Editing by Sam Holmes, Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

Passengers depart coronavirus cruise ship at last; Japan’s effort under fire

By Linda Sieg and Ryan Woo

TOKYO/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of people began disembarking a cruise ship in Japan on Wednesday after being held on board for more than two weeks under quarantine, as criticism mounted of Japan’s handling of the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside China.

A member of the media approaches a passenger after he walked out from the cruise ship Diamond Princess at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Even as patients trundled off the Diamond Princess cruise liner with their suitcases, Japanese authorities announced 79 new cases had been discovered on board, bringing the total above 620, well over half the known cases outside mainland China.

In China itself, the death toll from the coronavirus climbed above 2,000, but the tally of newly reported cases fell for a second day to the lowest since January, offering hope and helping Asian shares and U.S. stock futures rise.

China is struggling to get its economy back on track after imposing severe travel restrictions to contain a virus that emerged in the central province of Hubei late last year.

Beyond mainland China, six people have died from the disease, and governments around the world are trying to prevent it from spreading into a global epidemic. The Diamond Princess has been quarantined at a dock at Yokohama near Tokyo since Feb. 3, initially with 3,700 people aboard.

From Wednesday, passengers who tested negative and showed no symptoms were free to leave. Around 500 were expected to disembark on Wednesday, with the rest of those eligible departing over the next two days. Confirmed cases were to be sent to hospital, while those who shared cabins with infected passengers may still be kept on board.

Around half of the passengers and crew are Japanese, and are free to go home once cleared to leave. Other countries have said they will fly passengers home and quarantine them on arrival. The United States flew more than 300 passengers to air bases in California and Texas this week.

“I am very keen to get off this ship,” Australian passenger Vicki Presland told Reuters over a social-media link. She was among a group of Australians getting off to catch an evacuation flight back to 14 days of quarantine in the city of Darwin.

Matthew Smith, an American passenger who remained on board after declining the U.S. evacuation earlier this week, tweeted video of passengers departing with their suitcases.

“Captain wishes ‘Arrivederci’ to the guests departing the ship today but omits his usual ‘Buon Appetito’ to those of us who are still awaiting our fates. Hey, what are we – chopped liver?!” he wrote.

Passengers stand on the cruise ship Diamond Princess at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“COMPLETELY INADEQUATE”

The rapid spread of the disease aboard the ship has drawn strong criticism of the Japanese authorities, just months before Japan is due to host the Olympics.

Infectious disease specialist Kentaro Iwata of Japan’s Kobe University Hospital, who volunteered to help aboard the ship, described the infection control effort on board as “completely inadequate”, and said basic protocols had not been followed.

“There was no single professional infection control person inside the ship and there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional. The bureaucrats were in charge of everything,” he said in a YouTube video.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato defended Japan’s efforts: “Unfortunately, cases of infection have emerged, but we have to the extent possible taken appropriate steps to prevent serious cases,” Kato said in a report by state broadcaster NHK.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Japan’s efforts “may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship.”

From the start, experts raised questions about quarantine on the ship. Passengers were not confined to their rooms until Feb. 5. The day before, as passengers were being screened, onboard events continued, including dances, quiz games and an exercise class, one passenger said.

BETTER DAY IN CHINA

The promising sign out of China came from the National Health Commission, which reported 1,749 new confirmed cases, the lowest tally since Jan. 29. Hubei – the epicentre of the outbreak – reported the lowest number of new infections since Feb. 11, while outside of Hubei there were just 56 new cases, down from a peak of 890 on Feb. 3.

The latest figures bring the total number of cases in China to more than 74,000 and the death toll to 2,004, three-quarters of which have occurred in Wuhan, Hubei’s provincial capital.

On top of tough steps taken to isolate Hubei, where the flu-like virus originated in a market illegally selling wildlife, state media reported the province would track down anyone who visited doctors with fever since Jan. 20 or bought over-the-counter cough and fever medication.

Chinese officials have said the apparent slowdown in infection rates is evidence that the strict measures are working. Epidemiologists outside China have said in recent days that the reports from there are encouraging but it is still too early to predict whether the epidemic will be contained.

Chinese officials have been putting on a brave face, saying the economic impact of the virus would be limited and short-term. President Xi Jinping said China could meet its 2020 economic targets, media reported.

Big manufacturing hubs on the coast are starting to loosen curbs on the movement of people and traffic while authorities prod factories to get back to work.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Sophie Yu in Beijing; Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Se Young Lee in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Colin Packham in Sydney; Sarah Wu in Hong Kong; Krishna Das in Kuala Lumpur; Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Jan Strupczewski in Brussels and Peter Graff in London; Writing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore)

Hundreds of Americans flown home from cruise ship, 14 with coronavirus

By David Stanway and Stephen Lam

SHANGHAI/TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (Reuters) – More than 300 American cruise liner passengers, including 14 who tested positive for coronavirus, were flown home to military bases in the United States, after two weeks under quarantine off Japan.

The cruise ship Diamond Princess, with more than 400 cases by far the largest cluster outside China, has become the biggest test so far of other countries’ ability to contain an outbreak that has killed 1,770 people in China and five elsewhere.

Ground crew in anti-contamination suits met a chartered jet that touched down at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, and passengers could be seen climbing down the stairs wearing face masks in the pre-dawn mist. Another flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California hours earlier. Those arriving were taken into a two-week quarantine.

Although U.S. officials said passengers with coronavirus symptoms would not be taken, 14 passengers found at the last minute to have tested positive were permitted to board the planes. The U.S. State Department said the infected passengers were kept in isolation on the flights.

Across mainland China, officials said the total number of coronavirus cases rose by 2,048 to 70,548. That was slightly more new cases than were reported on Sunday, but hundreds fewer than reported on Saturday.

Chinese authorities say the stabilization in the number of new cases is a sign that measures they have taken to halt the spread of the disease are having an effect.

However, epidemiologists say it is probably still too early to say how well the outbreak is being contained within China and its central Hubei province, where the virus first appeared. Official figures of new cases have leveled off in the past, only to jump suddenly after changes in methodology.

China has responded to the COVID-19 virus by locking down Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million people, and imposing restrictions in a number of other cities.

But the ruling Communist Party is also under pressure to prevent the economy from crashing and get people back to work.

China’s central bank cut the interest rate on its medium-term lending, a move that is expected to pave the way for a reduction in the benchmark loan prime rate on Thursday. Beijing has also announced plans for cuts in taxes and fees.

Even so, economists expect China’s economic growth to slow. Ratings agency Moody’s on Monday lowered its 2020 GDP growth forecast to 5.2%, making it likely China would miss a goal to double GDP over the decade to 2020.

CRUISE SHIPS

Around half of all known cases of the virus outside China have been found aboard the Diamond Princess, where around 400 people have tested positive since the cruise liner was ordered to stay under quarantine off Japan on Feb. 3.

Several other countries have announced plans to follow the United States in bringing passengers home. Around half of the 3,700 passengers and crew are Japanese.

Matthew Smith, an American passenger who remained on the ship after refusing to board the voluntary repatriation flights, tweeted that staying behind was the “best decision ever”.

“US Gov’t said they would not put anyone on the planes who was symptomatic, and they ended up knowingly and intentionally putting on 14 people who actually have the virus,” he wrote.

Authorities around the world were also trying to track down passengers from another cruise liner, the Westerdam, which was turned away from ports across Southeast Asia for two weeks before docking in Cambodia on Thursday.

One American passenger who disembarked in Cambodia tested positive for the virus in Malaysia on Saturday.

Carnival Corp., which operates both cruise liners, said it was cooperating with authorities in trying to trace other passengers from the Westerdam. None of the other 1,454 passengers and 802 crew had reported any symptoms, it said.

“Guests who have already returned home will be contacted by their local health department and be provided further information,” a statement from the company’s Holland America Line unit said. Hundreds of passengers are still in Cambodia, either on the ship or in hotels.

“We will all be tested for the coronavirus today and tomorrow by the Cambodian Ministry of Health,” said passenger Holley Rauen, a public health nurse and midwife from Fort Myers, Florida. “We have no idea when we get to get home.”

CHINA BACK TO WORK?

After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China needs to get back to work or suffer severe economic consequences. There is a proposal to delay the opening of the annual session of parliament, due on Feb. 24.

Some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country. Many factories have yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains in China and beyond.

In Japan, where data showed on Monday that the economy had already shrunk last quarter at the fastest pace in almost six years, the impact of the virus is expected to show up in the current quarter, stoking fears of recession.

Trade-dependent Singapore downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast and has said recession is possible. It is set to unveil measures to cushion the blow on Tuesday.

Organizers of the Tokyo Marathon have decided to limit the March 1 race to top-level athletes, banning 38,000 general participants, a person with knowledge of the issue told Reuters.

Japan’s Imperial Household Agency said it would cancel Emperor Naruhito’s public birthday address on Feb. 23, his first since his coronation last year. The event regularly attracts tens of thousands of people to the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo.

(Reporting by David Stanway in Shanghai; Claire Baldwin in Sihanoukville; John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Additional reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong, Sophie Yu in Beijing, Hilary Russ in New York and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie)

Japan records first coronavirus death, two taxi drivers test positive

By Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – A woman has died from the coronavirus in Japan, the first such death in the country since the epidemic spread from China, the health minister said on Thursday.

Two taxi drivers, one of them in the capital Tokyo, have also tested positive, raising the possibility that it could be passed on through their passengers.

For a graphic tracking the spread of the coronavirus from China, click here

On the Diamond Princess cruise liner quarantined in the port of Yokohama, 44 new cases were confirmed.

But in some good news for the 3,500-odd passengers and crew who have been stuck onboard since Feb. 3, Japan said it would allow some elderly people who have tested negative for the coronavirus to disembark ahead of schedule.

Japan is of the countries worst affected by the epidemic outside China, with 251 confirmed cases, including those on the Diamond Princess.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference on Thursday that a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, which borders Tokyo, had died. She was the first fatality in Japan, and the third outside mainland China.

The woman fell ill in January but only later showed symptoms of pneumonia and was hospitalised, then transferred to another hospital when her condition worsened.

Her infection with the coronavirus confirmed after her death, Kato said. The route of contagion was being investigated.

The minister also confirmed that a Tokyo taxi driver in his 70s had tested positive for the virus, along with a doctor in central Japan. A third person, also a taxi driver, in Chiba just east of Tokyo has also tested positive.

Kato announced earlier on Thursday that elderly passengers on the Diamond Princess who have pre-existing conditions or are in windowless rooms would be allowed to leave starting from Friday, rather than the originally targeted date of Feb. 19. They will complete their quarantine onshore.

The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Feb. 3 after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus that has now killed more than 1,350 people in mainland China.

About 80% of the ship’s passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to Japanese 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.

The additional 44 cases included 43 passengers and one crew member, Kyodo news agency said. With the number of those infected on the cruise ship now up to 218 plus one quarantine officer, concerns have been raised about conditions on the ship.

Brandon Brown, a health expert at the University of California, said that despite some passengers’ concerns, recycled air on the ship did not pose a risk.

“The more likely explanation for the spread of infection during quarantine on the ship is the high passenger interaction due to close quarters and limited personal space on any cruise ship,” Brown said.

Indian media aired videos in which Indian crew members said they were working in close quarters and appealed for help from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A health ministry official could not confirm how many of those infected so far on the ship were crew.

OLYMPICS CONCERNS

Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the cabinet would decide on Friday on spending 10.3 billion yen ($95 million) from the budget reserve to respond to the coronavirus.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics President Yoshiro Mori repeated that the Summer Olympics due to held in the capital from July 24 would go ahead as planned.

“I would like to clearly reiterate that cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games are not being considered,” he said at the start of a meeting with International Olympic Committee Coordination Commission Chief John Coates.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; Writing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Coronavirus cases on cruise ship marooned off Japan rise to 61

By Ju-min Park and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Dozens more people onboard a cruise ship quarantined in the port of Yokohama, Japan, tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday and thousands of passengers remained confined to their cabins, only allowed on deck briefly for fresh air.

The Diamond Princess, owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp, was placed on a two-week quarantine on arriving at Yokohama on Monday after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference that 41 people on the liner had tested positive for coronavirus on Friday, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 61. Twentyone of the new cases were Japanese.

Those infected were taken off the ship and moved to hospitals in Tokyo and neighbouring towns, the health ministry said. Blue and white tarpaulin sheets were hung up to screen them from the view of other passengers.

About 3,700 people are aboard the Diamond Princess, which usually has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.

Operator Princess Cruises’ website describes the ship as “your home away from home” and it will remain so for most passengers at last until Feb. 19. The quarantine period could be extended if need be, a Japanese government official told a media briefing.

The 61 cases came from a sample of 273 people who had been tested because they had showed symptoms or been in close contact with those who did. More tests will be done if any more passengers developed symptoms, Kato said.

For the stranded passengers, who were promised “a treasure trove of exceptional delights” in the ship’s brochure, the new infections spelled only more gloom.

Staff distributed thermometers and passengers were told that mental health experts were available for telephone consultations around the clock.

“We have instructions to monitor our temperatures and report if we’re above 37.5,” one man, a 43-year-old Hong Kong resident on the ship with his family, told Reuters.

Normal human body temperature is generally accepted to be 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit).

Passengers were finding out about the new infections from the internet before they were announced on the ship, said the Hong Kong man, who declined to be identified.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, an American whose parents are on the ship, said she hoped U.S. officials would be able to help her parents get off it.

“They are all breathing circulated contaminated air so they could be getting everyone infected,” Rhodes-Courter said.

Passengers wearing face masks are seen on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, where 10 more people were tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

CRUISE SHIP CONCERN

The Japanese official said the government saw no risk of the virus being spread by the Diamond Princess’s ventilation system because transmission is not airborne. Rather it is spread by droplets from coughs or sneezes that can stick to surfaces and infect other people.

But Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious disease at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said the potential for cruise ships spreading the epidemic across the world was now becoming a serious concern.

“Cruise ships are environments where respiratory infections can spread very quickly,” he said.

They also carry the further risk of transmitting a viral infection to other countries as passengers embark and disembark.

“I would be surprised if we don’t see more problems with cruise ships in the coming weeks,” Hunter said.

Transport Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba told reporters Japan had asked another cruise ship, the Westerdam, not to make a port call in the country.

The governor of the U.S. island territory of Guam, in the Pacific Ocean, earlier on Friday rejected a U.S. State Department request to allow the Westerdam to dock there.

The new ship cases take the total number of coronavirus infections in Japan to more than 80, according to Reuters calculations. Health Minister Kato said Japan was not including those cases in its national count, which stands at 21.

The outbreak, which has killed almost 640 people in mainland China and two elsewhere, has also stoked concern about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which begin on July 24.

Games organisers have set up a task force to coordinate with health authorities on how to respond to the epidemic.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Elaine Lies, Rocky Swift, Kiyoshi Takenaka, David Dolan, Tim Kelly and Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S., Japan pull nationals from China, big virus economic hit forecast

By Se Young Lee and Cheng Leng

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The United States and Japan flew nationals out of China’s virus epicenter on Wednesday and some big-name airlines suspended flights as deaths leapt to 133 and a senior economist predicted a major impact on growth.

Beijing’s plans to slay the “devil” coronavirus may have won the trust of the World Health Organization (WHO), but confirmation of another 1,459 cases – taking the total to 5,974 in China – only fueled global public alarm.

Deaths from the flu-like virus also rose by 27 to 133.

Almost all have been in the central province of Hubei, the capital of which is Wuhan, where the virus emerged last month in a live wild animal market.

The situation remained “grim and complex”, Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged.

(Follow Reuters full coverage of the coronavirus http://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH/0100B59Y39P/index.html )

In many Chinese cities, streets were largely deserted with the few who ventured out wearing masks. Starbucks coffee shops required people to have temperatures taken and masks on.

“It’s my first time here in Asia, I feel very unlucky,” said Brazilian tourist Amanda Lee, 23, cutting short a trip. “I couldn’t even see the places I wanted, like the Great Wall.”

There was relief, however, among evacuees from Hubei province, home to about 60 million people and under virtual lockdown. “I was extremely worried that I was stuck there,” said Takeo Aoyama, who arrived in Tokyo on a chartered plane carrying 206 Japanese out of Wuhan.

The United States flew about 210 citizens out of Wuhan, to be screened several times on arrival in California. Britain said it would put 200 citizens on a charter plane on Thursday.

The virus is weighing heavily on the world’s second-biggest economy, with companies cutting corporate travel to China and tourists cancelling trips. Various airlines are cutting flights, from British Airways and Lufthansa to Tanzania’s national carrier that postponed maiden flights.

A government economist said the crisis could cut China’s first quarter growth by one point to 5% or lower as the crisis hits sectors from mining to luxury goods.

Hong Kong stocks took a beating on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year break. Casino and financial stocks led the Hang Seng index 2.5% lower to a seven-month trough.

Regional markets, however, arrested their slide, with stocks in Japan, Australia, South Korea and India steady or firmer and currencies mostly stable.

“In our view, the worst is yet to come,” securities firm Nomura said, warning of a severe, near-term blow to China’s economy.

‘SPREADING AT BREAKNECK SPEED’

But in a potentially major step toward finding a vaccine, scientists in Australia said they had developed a lab-grown version of the virus, the first recreated outside China.

The researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity said they would share the sample, grown from an infected patient, with the WHO and global laboratories in the hope of hastening immunization and detection.

Australia’s government said it would help some citizens leave and quarantine them on Christmas Island, best known for housing asylum seekers.

The number of cases in China now exceeds its tally of 5,327 infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

While some experts believe the new strain, known as “2019-nCoV”, is not as deadly as SARS, alarm has grown over its rapid spread and many unknown attributes, such as how lethal it is.

“There have been more cases in China, but so far with a lower death rate than the SARS outbreak,” said Michael Head, a health researcher at Britain’s University of Southampton.

“A pandemic is typically called by the World Health Organization after there has been sustained transmission across many countries. Though there have been cases reported in several countries now, we’re not quite at that stage of sustained transmission yet.”

Like other respiratory infections, the new virus is spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes, with an incubation time between one and 14 days.

About 60 cases, but no deaths, have been reported in 15 other countries. In the first known cases in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates diagnosed four members of a Chinese family who arrived from Wuhan with the coronavirus.

Hubei governor Wang Xiaodong said the outbreak in Huanggang city was also severe and it must not be allowed to become a second Wuhan. Companies in the province should not resume work before Feb. 13, he told reporters.

“The most difficult part is to be at home most of the day. It is more safe to stay away from other people,” said Emilia, 28, a research scientist and Russian national in Wuhan.

U.N. children’s agency UNICEF sent six tonnes of masks and protective suits for healthcare workers. “This coronavirus is spreading at a breakneck speed and it is important to put all the necessary resources into halting it,” said executive director Henrietta Fore.

(Reporting by Lusha Zhang, Gabriel Crossley, Tony Munroe, Huizhong Wu, Cheng Leng, Judy Hua, Nanlin Fang and Joyce Zhou in Beijing; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont in Paris, Akira Tomoshige in Tokyo, Kate Kelland in London, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

Japan clears restart at nuclear reactor closest to epicenter of 2011 quake

By Aaron Sheldrick and Yuka Obayashi

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Tohoku Electric Power said on Wednesday it has won initial regulatory approval to restart a reactor at its Onagawa power plant, more than 8 years after it was damaged in the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima disaster.

Tohoku Electric said in a statement it has received a first green light from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority to restart the No. 2 reactor at Onagawa, subject to a public consultation period.

Onagawa was the closest among Japan’s nuclear stations to the epicenter of the magnitude-9 quake in March 2011, which triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people, as well as causing the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The station was swamped by the tsunami, but survived with its cooling system intact, saving its reactors from the threat of meltdowns similar to those that occurred at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi station to the south.

Further approvals will be required before the restart, along with the consent of local authorities, which is not guaranteed.

The reactor is a boiling water reactor (BWR) with the same basic design as those that melted down in the Fukushima crisis.

Tohoku Electric expects to spend 340 billion yen ($3.1 billion) on safety upgrades at the Onagawa plant, including for a wall stretching 800 meters (2,625-ft) in length and standing as tall as 29 meters above sea level to protect it from tsunamis.

Restarting the No. 2 reactor will save the utility 35 billion yen each year in fuel costs, he said.

The Fukushima disaster led to the eventual shutdown of the country’s then-54 operational reactors, which once provided nearly a third of Japan’s electricity. All had to be relicensed under new standards after the disaster highlighted operational and regulatory failings.

While the approval will be a boost for Japan’s resurgent nuclear industry, the sector will still miss a government target of providing at least a fifth of the country’s electricity by 2030, an analysis by Reuters showed last year.

Nine reactors have been restarted, all of them pressurized water reactors located far from Tokyo, while the stigma of Fukushima still hangs over use of the older BWR technology.

The issue of nuclear safety in Japan was highlighted again earlier this week when Pope Francis – who met victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster while in Japan over the weekend – said nuclear energy should not be used until there are ironclad guarantees that it is safe for people and the environment.

 

(Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick and Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)