The World Health Organization on Monday said COVID-19 does not seem to be as deadly as the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, as the number of Americans stricken with the mysterious illness doubled.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing in Geneva that about 2% of cases have resulted in death, compared with 10% of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Still, SARS killed about 800 people over eight months and COVID-19 has killed about 1,770 people, mostly in China, since December.
Dr. Ghebreyesus said transmission of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, seems to be slowing.
“The data also appear to show a decline in new cases,” he said, but it is “too early to tell if this reported decline will continue. Every scenario is still on the table.”
Meanwhile, the arrival Sunday and Monday of charter flights carrying more than 300 Americans who had been quarantined on a Japanese cruise ship nearly doubled the number of people infected with the coronavirus in the U.S.
At least 29 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in the U.S. The virus that causes the disease has infected more than 71,000 globally, mostly in mainland China. About 800 cases have been reported in 25 other countries, including the U.S.
Fourteen Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship and were evacuated to California and Texas aboard charter flights tested positive for the virus upon landing, adding to the 15 confirmed U.S. cases.
Several airlines have canceled flights to and from China amid the highest level of travel advisories issued by the State Department. U.S. citizens evacuated from China are ordered to undergo quarantine for 14 days, the apparent incubation period for the respiratory disease. Foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China are barred from entering the U.S., with few exceptions.
But questions about restrictions and travel procedures for cruise ships and seaports have arisen.
“There is another question as to whether the U.S. should advise its citizens not to take cruise ship journeys until it is safe to do so. I think restrictions on the cruise ship industry would be met with fierce pushback from the industry and probably would be opposed by WHO,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.
“Instead, I believe we should insist or require that cruise ship operators take rigorous precautions, such as enhanced screening of future passengers, disinfecting ship surfaces and rigorous contingency plans if an outbreak were to occur,” Mr. Gostin said. “Those plans should keep both passengers and staff safe, provide care and have a public health protocol in place.”
The State Department dispatched two charter flights to evacuate 328 Americans from the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan. After passengers disembarked from the ship, U.S. officials learned that 14 tested positive for coronavirus infection.
Officials decided to allow the 14 infected passengers, who were not showing symptoms, to board the plane and be kept separate from the others.
The U.S. evacuees will be housed at Travis Air Force Base in California and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. They will be under a 14-day federal quarantine and will be housed separately from people in quarantine from earlier repatriation flights from Wuhan.
Japan on Monday announced 99 more infections on the Diamond Princess, raising the total number of cases on the ship to 454.
In Cambodia, movement of passengers and crew of the MS Westerdam cruise ship came to a halt after news that an 83-year-old American woman who was aboard the ship tested positive for the virus over the weekend after flying from Cambodia to Malaysia.
The MS Westerdam was turned away from other countries in Asia because of fears of the novel coronavirus. Cambodia agreed to allow the ship to dock last week.
Some of the passengers are now in hotels in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Others remain on the ship.
“We have a group of people who say we should steer clear of cruise ships or steer clear of airports, steer clear of certain ethnic groups and steer clear of other things,” Michael Ryan, a member of WHO’s emergency committee, said Monday. “We have to be really careful here. There’s no zero risk in the world for anything.”
He said the public health approach must manage the risk of the virus yet allow society to operate.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he does not think the U.S. and other countries should be implementing travel restrictions or precautions for ships.
“This is a virus with efficient human-to-human spread that really will not be contained. Efforts should be focused on hospital preparedness, vaccine development, antiviral trials and diagnostic scale up,” he said.
Italy, Hong Kong, Canada and Australia also were planning to evacuate their citizens from the Diamond Princess in Japan. Canada and Hong Kong will require their evacuees to undergo a two-week quarantine.
Also on Monday, a Russian court ordered a woman who escaped from a virus quarantine to return to the hospital she fled for at least two more days.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials said they might postpone next month’s annual congress, the largest political meeting of the year, as hundreds more medical workers and extra supplies were sent to Wuhan.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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