Two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship because they were infected with coronavirus have died, Japan’s Health Ministry said.
They are the first fatalities from the virus-stricken boat, and Japan now has three deaths linked to the Covid-19 illness.
The ministry also announced 13 more cases on the ship, bringing the total to 634, by far the largest number in one location outside mainland China.
The two fatalities, a man and woman in their eighties who are both Japanese, were believed to have been infected before health checks and a February 5 quarantine began on the ship, Health Ministry official Masami Sakoi said.
It was not immediately known if they had any roommates on the ship.
They had been in hospital on February 11 and 12 and each tested positive a day later.
It was not immediately known why they were not tested earlier when they developed initial symptoms and consulted with the ship’s clinic, Sakoi said.
The ministry also announced two more government officials had become infected while providing clerical work on the ship to help in the quarantine effort.
Four other officials – a quarantine official, a paramedic who carried an infected passenger, a Health Ministry worker and an emergency relief medical expert – have also been taken ill.
The new virus began in China late last year and has affected tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province.
With the 634 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people, Japan has more than 700 cases, including the country’s first death unrelated to the ship.
The Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama near Tokyo, started letting passengers who tested negative for the virus off the ship on Wednesday, when the government-set 14-day quarantine ended.
On Thursday, hundreds of other passengers were also expected to leave in a massive disembarkation process expected to last until Friday. Test results are still pending for some people on board.
Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator. Some medical experts who observed the quarantine process on board also raised caution over lax protective measures on the ship.
Kentaro Iwata, an infectious diseases expert at Kobe University Hospital who boarded the ship as part of a medical relief team earlier this week, said in a YouTube video that he was alarmed by the lack of control measures, including distinction between clean and contaminated zones, and the inadequate use of protective gear.
He called it “chaotic” and said it made him scared of getting infected himself.
Mr Iwata, currently in self-imposed quarantine at a hotel, said the Japanese Health Ministry-led operation implemented some measures, but “to me it was not good enough, because there were exchanges of dirty and clean”.
He said Japan should follow the example of the US and other countries requiring an additional two-week quarantine for passengers brought home from the ship.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato initially said those with negative virus tests had fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and were free to walk out and go home on public transport, but later urged former passengers to avoid non-essential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks.
About 440 passengers had left the ship by Wednesday evening, and Japanese officials said more than 1,000 others will be gone by Friday.
The Diamond Princess was quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Crew members, who could not be confined to their rooms because they were working and causing secondary infections, are expected to stay on the ship.