By Engen Tham and Stella Qiu
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – American passengers were taken off a cruise liner on Sunday to fly home after being quarantined for two weeks off Japan, while China said the rate of new coronavirus cases had slowed, calling that proof its steps to fight the outbreak were working.
An announcement aboard the Diamond Princess, where 3,700 passengers and crew have been held since Feb. 3, told Americans to get ready to disembark on Sunday evening for charter flights home. Passengers wearing masks could later be seen waving through the windows of buses parked near the ship.
Of the roughly 400 Americans on the cruise, more than 40 are infected with the virus and will stay in Japan for treatment, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“They are not going to go anywhere. They’re going to be in hospitals in Japan,” Fauci told the CBS News program “Face the Nation.” “People who have symptoms will not be able to get on the evacuation plane. Others are going to be evacuated starting imminently to air force bases in the United States.”
Kyodo News Agency said the flights carrying U.S. passengers left Haneda Airport at around 1700 ET (2200 GMT).
Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow soon, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.
“Leaving in a few hours. No details. Might be going to Texas or Nebraska,” U.S. passenger Gay Courter told Reuters.
Seventy new coronavirus cases were confirmed on board, bringing the total on the ship to 355, by far the largest cluster of cases outside China. Fauci told the Washington Post there were 44 infected Americans.
Within China, authorities reported 2,009 new cases on Sunday, noting that this was down from more than 2,600 the previous day. They said this showed their efforts to halt the spread of the virus were bearing fruit.
“The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” Mi Feng, spokesman for the Health Commission, told reporters.
The new cases brought the total to 68,500 in mainland China, with 1,665 deaths, including 143 fatalities reported on Sunday. Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who traveled from Chinese cities, with five deaths.
The coronavirus is thought to have emerged at a wildlife market in China’s central province of Hubei. China’s response has included putting Hubei and its capital Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – on virtual lockdown.
Mi said the proportion of confirmed cases who were critically ill had fallen to 21.6% on Saturday, from 32.4% on Jan. 27. He said this showed the authorities were able to treat patients more quickly, preventing cases from becoming critical.
Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Britain’s University of Edinburgh, said if the numbers suggested the epidemic has peaked in Hubei, “then this would be encouraging news for the rest of the world too”.
But he added: “We should be cautious though; it could simply be that reporting is not keeping up with events in circumstances where the health services are under enormous pressure.”
Declining numbers of reported new infections could mean the virus was being contained, but could also mean it was simply running out of susceptible new hosts in Wuhan, he said.
Restrictions were tightened further in Hubei on Sunday with vehicles, apart from essential services, banned from the roads and companies told to stay shut until further notice.
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But in some cities streets are still deserted.
On board the Diamond Princess, American passenger Matthew Smith posted a photo on Twitter showing buses parked on the shore to take U.S. nationals to the airport. American officials in hazmat suits and masks had visited his room to check if he would disembark. He said he wanted to stay.
The ship, owned by Carnival Corp., has been held in the port of Yokohama and those with the disease have been taken to hospital onshore. No one from the ship has died.
Countries that have announced plans to fly their citizens home from the ship say they will take them only if they are symptom-free, and quarantine them on arrival.
The U.S. Department of Defense is preparing to receive two flights with passengers – one to land at Travis Air Force Base, California and the other at Kelly Field/Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The evacuees will be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
Another cruise ship, Holland America’s MS Westerdam, docked in Cambodia on Thursday after being rejected by ports elsewhere. An 83-year-old American passenger tested positive upon arriving in Malaysia, authorities there said. A second test requested by the cruise operator confirmed the finding.
Taiwan reported its first fatality on Sunday. The first fatality in Europe was reported on Saturday, an 80-year-old Chinese man who died at a Paris hospital.
(Reporting by Stella Qiu and Muyu Xu in Beijing, Engen Tham and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Kevin Yao in Singapore, Ebrahim Harris in Kuala Lumpur, Cynthia Kim, Minwoo Park in Seoul, Kate Kelland in London, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)