TOKYO (Reuters) - A taxi driver in Tokyo has tested positive for the coronavirus, NHK public TV reported, marking a further spread of the disease in Japan even as authorities said some passengers aboard a ship quarantined off its coast would finally be allowed to disembark.
The broadcaster, quoting sources, said the health ministry was trying to trace the route of the contagion, adding that the driver said he had carried passengers who appeared to be Chinese.
No further details were immediately available, including word on the condition of the man, who NHK said was in his 70s. The case is likely to raise further concerns about the spread of the flu-like virus given how many people a city taxi driver has likely been in contact with.
The news came after Japan said it would allow some elderly passengers on the quarantined cruise liner who test negative for the new coronavirus to disembark ahead of schedule and another 44 new cases were confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said elderly passengers 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, and complete their quarantine ashore.
“We will make every effort to ensure the safety and peace of mind of the people,” Kato told a televised news conference, without confirming the number of passengers who may leave ahead of schedule.
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, where about 3,500 people remain on board.
The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Feb. 3 after a man who disembarked from the liner in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus that has now killed more than 1,350 in mainland China.
About 80% of the ship passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to Japanese media. The ship typically has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.
The British-flagged Diamond Princess is managed by Princess Cruise Lines, one of the world’s largest cruise lines and a unit of Carnival Corp.
The additional 44 cases included 43 passengers and one crew member, Kyodo news agency said.
Brandon Brown, an expert in international health at the University of California, Riverside, said recycled air on the ship - a concern of some passengers - 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.
Concern has also risen about the safety of the crew, after 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 immediately confirm how many of those infected so far on the ship were crew, but on Wednesday media reported that of 39 new cases, 10 were crew.
Separately, NHK also reported on Thursday that a doctor in central Japan had tested positive for the virus.
Later on Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the cabinet would decide on Friday to spend 10.3 billion yen ($95 million) from the budget reserve to respond to the coronavirus.
With Japan one of the countries worst affected outside China, the spread of the virus has raised concerns about possible impact on the Summer Olympics to be held in Tokyo from July 24.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics President Yoshiro Mori repeated on Thursday that the Games 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.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
($1 = 109.6900 yen)
Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; writing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Alex Richardson