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Three Japanese evacuated from Wuhan test positive for virus

Ambulances arrive at Haneda airport in Tokyo to meet the second charter flight evacuating Japanese citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan © JIJI PRESS/AFP / STR

Tokyo, Japan, Jan 30 – 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 case of apparent person-to-person transmission of the virus in Japan.

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”, with two people on the first flight even refusing to be tested for the virus.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said Thursday there were now 11 confirmed cases in Japan.

Factfile on viruses, among the most abundant organisms on the planet © AFP / John SAEKI

“In addition to the eight (previously known) cases, among the people who returned from Wuhan yesterday, 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.

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“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.

A health screening station at Narita airport © JIJI PRESS/AFP / STR

Some 15 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. Instead, returnees have been asked to stay at home until they test negative for the virus.

But Kato revealed Thursday that two people on the first flight had refused the test.

“We don’t have the legal basis to force them so we let them go home,” he told lawmakers.

– Fierce criticism –

The two were asked to avoid public transport, and quarantine officers will follow up on their health.

An All Nippon Airways plane lands at Haneda airport in Tokyo carrying a second batch of Japanese citizens evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan © JIJI PRESS/AFP / STR

The government has since classified the new virus a “designated infectious disease”, meaning it will be able to forcibly hospitalise those who test positive, but the regulation will only work its way through the system by February 7.

But 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. Singapore said 92 of its citizens would be isolated for two weeks after being evacuated on Thursday.

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Online there has been fierce criticism, with one Twitter user dubbing returnees who refused testing “terrorists”.

“People talk about human rights, but how is quarantine discrimination?” asked another, adding: “Becoming the source of a pandemic would definitely be negative for a person who was released instead of quarantined.”

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.

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