Three Japanese evacuated from the epicentre of a deadly new coronavirus outbreak have tested positive for the illness, the government said Thursday, as it faced criticism for the country’s minimal quarantine measures.
The new cases were announced as another evacuation flight from Wuhan landed in Tokyo, and the government confirmed a second local case of apparent person-to-person transmission of the virus.
More than 400 people have now been repatriated from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak that has killed 170 people and infected thousands.
But while returnees praised the government’s effort to bring them home quickly, there has been criticism of Japan’s decision to allow the arrivals to “self-quarantine”.
Two of Wednesday’s returnees initially refused to be tested for the virus, although officials said the pair were now willing to be checked.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said Thursday there were now 11 confirmed cases in Japan.
“In addition to the eight (previously known) cases, among the people who returned from Wuhan yesterday, the infection has been confirmed in one person with symptoms and two other people who have no symptoms,” he told parliament.
On Wednesday, authorities reported a second case involving someone who had not recently travelled to China.
The woman was a tour guide — for visitors from Wuhan — who worked on the same bus as a driver who also contracted the virus.
‘A truly new situation’
“The eighth case is the second suspected incident of human-to-human transmission in Japan,” Kato said.
“We are in a truly new situation.”
Earlier Thursday, 210 Japanese arrived on a second flight from Wuhan, with a third trip expected to collect remaining citizens.
The details of their conditions including whether all of them got tested for the virus “will be announced later,” a ministry official said.
More than a dozen people from the first flight have been hospitalised with varying symptoms, while another 13 on the second evacuation also reported feeling unwell.
Japan is not forcibly quarantining arrivals, saying they lack the legal basis to confine people who have not tested positive for the virus.
Returnees were initially asked to stay at home until they test negative for the virus but the majority of them are staying at a hotel in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo, according to the health ministry.
Minister Kato also urged returnees to stay at government-provided accommodation for two weeks even if their tests come back negative.
The two who initially refused to take the test were asked to avoid public transport, and quarantine officers will follow up on their health.
The government has classified the new virus a “designated infectious disease”, meaning it will be able to forcibly hospitalise those who test positive, but only once the regulation takes effect from February 7.
And the rules on testing people with no symptoms will not be affected.
Japan’s approach sits in stark contrast with other countries that are isolating repatriated nationals for between 72 hours and 14 days and there has been fierce criticism online in the country.
“The government really doesn’t seem to be planning to contain the coronavirus,” wrote one Twitter user. “It’s unbelievable they don’t prepare any facilities to quarantine the returnees.”
“The government’s risk management sucks,” added another. “I want them to do everything in their power and forced quarantine for the returnees.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament that the first flight was “arranged in extreme chaos” but that efforts were made to convince all those on the second flight to be tested for the virus.
It was not yet clear, however, how many of them had agreed.
Kato said Japan would need to “expand screening” in light of cases in people with no symptoms.
He also urged people to avoid stockpiling surgical masks — which are in short supply — but ruled out larger-scale measures including cancelling mass gatherings as necessary so far.