• Kyodo, AFP-JIJI


Three Japanese who returned from Wuhan on a government-chartered flight have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the health ministry said Thursday as more Japanese evacuees from the Chinese city arrived in Tokyo.

The three — one in stable condition and two without symptoms — were among 206 people brought back Wednesday from Wuhan amid a deadly outbreak started by the pneumonia-causing virus.

It is the first time that a person outside of China without symptoms has been confirmed to be infected with the virus, according to Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

A further 210 Japanese were flown back home Thursday on a second government-chartered flight, with some displaying symptoms such as coughs, according to the health ministry.

In the first group of returnees, all but two people agreed to tests for the virus. All passengers other than the three tested negative for the virus, the ministry said.

The latest group who came back Thursday is expected to be similarly screened.

“We will put top priority on protecting the lives and health of the people, and we will decide on what needs to be done without hesitation,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a Diet session Thursday, adding it was “extremely regrettable” that two people on the first flight refused to be screened.

Abe said authorities “spent a long time trying to convince them following their return” but could not force them to undergo testing as it is not mandatory by law.

Abe also stressed the importance of Taiwan joining the World Health Organization, saying “it will be difficult to stop the spread” if Taiwan is excluded for political reasons.

The government is planning to send a third flight. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there are still some 300 Japanese who wish to return from Wuhan, which has been under a virtual lockdown since last week.

Suga said the government is also considering using public facilities, including the National Police Academy, to house the returnees.

While returnees praised the government’s effort to bring them home quickly, there has been criticism of Japan’s decision to let them “self-quarantine,” including the two people on the first flight who refused to be tested.

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

Japan’s approach sits in stark contrast with other countries that are isolating repatriated nationals for between 72 hours and 14 days. Regulations make similar measures difficult, and the law allows people to refuse testing, said Kazuo Kobayashi, head of the public hygiene department at the Osaka Institute of Public Health.

“(The authorities) can only make a request but it doesn’t have binding power,” he said, declining to comment on the public safety implications.

The government has decided to classify the new virus a “designated infectious disease,” meaning it will be able to forcibly hospitalize those who test positive. But the rules on testing people with no symptoms will not be affected.

The total number of people infected with the virus in Japan, including foreign nationals, rose to 14 on Thursday, including the two people showing no symptoms.

On Wednesday, authorities reported a second case involving someone who had not traveled to China.

The woman was a tour guide who worked on the same bus as a driver who had contracted the virus despite not traveling to China. The bus was carrying a group of Chinese tourists from Wuhan earlier this month.

“The tour guide’s case is the second suspected incident of human-to-human transmission in Japan,” Kato said. “We are in a truly new situation.”

The tour guide, who is in her 40s, is a foreign national living in Osaka and was hospitalized on Jan. 23 with pneumonia, the health ministry said. Neither the guide nor the driver has ever been to Wuhan.

The government said Tuesday the driver in his 60s from neighboring Nara Prefecture became the first Japanese to be infected with the virus in the country.

He is believed to have had close contact with a total of 22 people both in and outside Nara after infection, including the tour guide, according to the prefectural government.

In mainland China, confirmed cases of infection have exceeded 7,700 and the death toll has reached 170, including over 120 in Wuhan, according to state media.

Aside from China and Japan, cases of infection have been confirmed in 14 countries including Thailand, Australia, Singapore and the United States as of Wednesday, according to a World Health Organization report.

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