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Fourteen US coronavirus patients among passengers airlifted from luxury cruise

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Wait: Buses to carry the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess leave at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama. Photo: Reuters

Wait: Buses to carry the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess leave at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

Wait: Buses to carry the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess leave at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama. Photo: Reuters

More than 300 American cruise passengers, including 14 who tested positive for coronavirus, have been flown home to military bases in the United States after two weeks under quarantine off Japan.

The liner Diamond Princess, with more than 400 cases, has by far the largest cluster of the virus outside China.

It has become the biggest test so far of other countries' ability to contain an outbreak that has killed 1,865 people in China and five elsewhere.

A ground crew in anti-contamination suits met the chartered jet when it touched down at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, and passengers could be seen climbing down the stairs wearing face masks.

Another flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California hours earlier.

All the passengers were taken into a further two-week quarantine.

Although US officials had said passengers with coronavirus symptoms would not be repatriated, 14 passengers found at the last minute to have tested positive were permitted to board the planes. The US State Department said the infected passengers were exposed to other passengers for about 40 minutes before they were isolated.

Across mainland China, the total number of coronavirus cases rose yesterday by 2,051 to 70,635, according to the World Health Organisation.

Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, last night reported there had been 93 new deaths yesterday.

Chinese authorities say the decrease in new cases is a sign measures to halt the spread of the disease are working.

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 levelled off in the past, only to jump suddenly after changes in methodology.

"The real issue is whether we are seeing efficient community transmission outside of China and at the present time we are not observing that," Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's emergencies programme, said.

Fewer than 700 cases have been reported in other countries and even within China the epidemic is affecting "a very tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of people," Mr Ryan said.

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

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

Half of all known cases of the virus outside China have been found on the Diamond Princess, ordered to stay under quarantine at the port of Yokohama on February 3.

Several other countries have announced plans to follow the US 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 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 south-east 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. None of the other 1,454 passengers and 802 crew had reported any symptoms, it said.

Irish Independent