National / Science & Health

Japan's Abe calls for vigilance against new coronavirus ahead of Chinese tourism influx

Kyodo, AP, JIJI

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that Japan needs to be on high alert and take necessary measures against a new coronavirus amid a spike in patients in China ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays.

In a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Abe instructed Cabinet ministers to strengthen quarantine efforts, monitor patients suspected of contracting the virus and gather the latest information in coordination with international organizations.

“The number of patients has been rising in China. We need to be more vigilant,” Abe said during the meeting.

State media reported Tuesday that six people have died in China, and as of the end of Monday around 291 people were confirmed to have been infected with the new coronavirus in cities and provinces in China, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Cities throughout Asia were also stepping up their defenses Tuesday against the virus, introducing mandatory screenings at airports of arrivals from high-risk areas of China. From Bangkok to Hong Kong and Seoul to Sydney, authorities have gone on high-alert following China’s confirmation of the first case of human-to-human transmission of the deadly illness.

The head of a Chinese government expert team said Monday that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in the new virus, a development that raises the possibility that it could spread more quickly and widely.

Team leader Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the virus from family members, state media reported. Some medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported.

In his first public statement on the crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the government to take every possible step to combat the outbreak.

“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said. “Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”

In Geneva, the World Health Organization announced it would convene an Emergency Committee meeting Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak warrants being declared a global health crisis.

Such declarations are typically made for epidemics of severe diseases that threaten to cross borders and require an internationally coordinated response.

The spread of the viral pneumonia comes as the country enters its busiest travel period, when millions board trains and planes for the Lunar New Year holidays. The outbreak is believed to have started late last month among people connected to a seafood market in Wuhan.

Japan confirmed its first case of infection last week after a Chinese man in his 30s tested positive for pneumonia caused by the virus. He returned to Japan in early January after traveling to Wuhan.

Japanese authorities are stepping up efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, as many Chinese tourists are expected to arrive in Japan during the Jan. 24 to 30 holiday period.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will do “all it can”to prevent an outbreak in the country.

“We will ask passengers flying from Wuhan to answer questionnaires about their health condition,” Suga said at a news conference Tuesday.

“We also have a system at hospitals across the nation to monitor pneumonia patients if they have traveled to Wuhan and the cause (of infection) is not clear,” the top government spokesman said.

The health ministry said Monday that it has identified 41 people who may have had long-term contact with patients of pneumonia caused by the new virus and that it will monitor their health condition for about two weeks. While three of them have already left Japan, the ministry has been able to get in touch with all 41 people, and no new case of infection has been confirmed in the country, it said.

Among the 41 people, 38 may have spent a large amount of time with the Chinese man at the workplace or at home. The other three people traveled with a woman from Wuhan whose infection was confirmed while she was in South Korea.

The ministry has been advising people entering Japan from Wuhan to wear a mask if they have symptoms such as fever and go to see a doctor after calling in advance.

It also asked airlines to make in-flight announcements calling on passengers from the city to report their conditions voluntarily if they have any of such symptoms.

Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases is working to build a system to detect people with the new coronavirus so that it can quickly respond to any new cases of infection.

Meanwhile, Japanese companies are also taking measures.

SoftBank Corp. has instructed local employees in China to work only at home, while Nippon Steel Corp. and Sony Corp. told their employees in Japan not to make business trips to China that are not urgent.

Automobiles are the mainstay industry in Wuhan, with Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. operating there. Nissan has banned its employees from going near the Wuhan seafood market apparently linked to the outbreak while calling on them to avoid touching animals.

Major retailer Aeon Co. runs three shopping malls in Wuhan. “We are taking stronger measures, such as sterilizing our commercial facilities more frequently and expanding the scope of areas subject to sterilization,” an Aeon public relations official said.

An official at Mizuho Bank, which has an Wuhan branch, said it will not ban business trips at the moment, but the bank is calling on its employees to gargle, wash their hands and wear a mask.

The Japan Tourism Agency has cautioned visitors via travel companies. The Foreign Ministry has emailed Japanese nationals in China to get updates on the outbreak

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