Asia Today: Cases on ship in Japan; India to use wristbands

BANGKOK —
Japanese officials said Wednesday that 33 crew members on a docked cruise ship tested positive for the coronavirus in one day of testing after the first case from the ship was reported.

The Italian-operated Costa Atlantica has been docked in Nagasaki since late January for repairs and maintenance by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry. The ship has 623 crew members, including a Japanese translator, but it was empty of passengers during the repair work.

The outbreak surfaced Tuesday when the first crew member, identified only as a foreign national, tested positive for the virus.

None of those infected had serious symptoms and all are isolated in single rooms on the ship, officials said.

Mitsubishi officials said no crew members had left the ship since mid-March. Before then, crew members had been allowed to come and go from ship to shore if they passed temperature checks and had not recently traveled to high-risk countries such as China and Italy.

Nagasaki officials are investigating how and where the crew members contracted the virus.

The outbreak on the ship adds to concerns about testing and hospital capacity in Nagasaki, where only 102 beds are available.

All of Japan is under a coronavirus state of emergency as cases rise. Japan has about 11,500 cases of infection, with 280 deaths. Those numbers are separate from an earlier outbreak on another cruise ship carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew, where 712 of them were infected.

In other developments around the Asia-Pacific region:

— INDIA TO USE WRISTBANDS FOR MONITORING: India says it will use wristbands fitted with a contact-tracing app aimed at helping citizens identify their risk of coronavirus infection. Officials said the wristbands will be used to monitor the movement and body temperature of quarantined patients. They said the wristbands, which will be fitted with the app Arogya Setu, will ease challenges for health workers by letting them know if potential patients have been to high-risk areas. The wristbands will also be used for people delivering essential items, such as groceries or medicine. Thousands of wristbands are expected to be deployed, but an exact figure has not yet been released.

— SINGAPORE CASES SURGE PAST 10,000: Singapore reported 1,016 new cases on Wednesday, bringing its total past 10,000. The tiny city-state’s tally rose to 10,141, maintaining its position as the worst-hit nation in Southeast Asia. It marked the third straight day of new cases above 1,000, but the total death toll from COVID-19 remained at 11. The health ministry said the vast majority of the new cases are again linked to foreign workers’ dormitories. The dorms have been locked down and virus testing has been ramped up to curb transmission.

— INDIA TO PROTECT HEALTH WORKERS: India is planning a new law that would make attacks on health care professionals a serious offense with a jail term from six months to seven years. “There will be absolutely no tolerance to attacks on doctors and health care professionals,” federal minister Prakash Javadekar said Wednesday. Under the law, health care professionals would also be extended insurance cover. Several health care workers in India have been attacked as they try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

— SOUTH KOREA TO CREATE $32B FUND: South Korea says it will create a 40 trillion won ($32 billion) fund to protect jobs in key industries as it scrambles to ease the economic shock from the coronavirus. The plans announced by President Moon Jae-in, which are contingent to parliamentary approval, require a state-run bank to issue bonds to create the fund, which will be used to help companies in industries such as airlines, automotive, shipbuilding and machinery. Officials said last week that South Korea lost nearly 200,000 jobs in March from a year earlier, the largest monthly decline since May 2009.

— CHINA INSTITUTES NEW CONTROLS: The capital of a border province in northeastern China is tightening rules on coronavirus prevention and control as cases rise. State media reported residential compounds in Harbin and villages on the outskirts were ordered to restrict access and install monitoring equipment on the doors of people forced to self-quarantine. Heilongjiang province has become a hot spot, mainly due to Chinese citizens flying in from Russia. The land border has been closed and a field hospital built to handle patient overloads. The 30 new cases China reported Wednesday include 23 from abroad and seven domestic cases, all in Heilongjiang.

— EXPERT: CAN STILL TEST POSITIVE WITH ANTIBODIES: South Korea’s top infectious disease expert says patients can still test positive for the coronavirus even after their bodies develop antibodies. The findings, based on a small sample of patients, came as officials explore why some COVID-19 patients relapse after their release from hospitals. Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that officials have so far tested 25 patients who developed neutralizing antibodies to resist further infections, but that 12 of them still tested positive for the virus. However, virus samples collected from the 12 cases could not be cultivated in isolation, indicating a loss of infectiousness. Jeong stressed that the findings don’t necessarily mean that a significant proportion of patients would be vulnerable to reinfections even after developing antibodies.

— TAIWAN NAVY SHIP CASES: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said she bore responsibility for a virus cluster on a navy ship that has infected 27 people. “I want to present my apologies for letting Taiwanese people bear the risk of the epidemic,” she said. Two admirals were removed from their posts pending further investigation into responsibility for the infections, Taiwan’s defense chief said. Taiwan has reported 425 cases and six deaths from the outbreak. More than half of the patients have been released from the hospital, and the self-governing island democracy has received praise for controlling the outbreak through case-tracing and social distancing, despite being excluded from the World Health Organization.

— AUSTRALIA-CHINA SPAT: Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Chinese criticism that Australia is parroting U.S. calls for transparency on the origins of the coronavirus is “unwarranted.” Frydenberg told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Australian officials’ role “is to defend the Australian national interest, and that’s what we’ll continue to do, and we’ll speak up about it as required.” China’s foreign ministry also said that Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s call for a review of the virus’s origins and that China’s handling of the outbreak was “not based on facts.”

— RELIGIOUS MEETING ARRESTS: Indian authorities arrested 29 people, including 16 foreigners, who participated in an Islamic missionary meeting last month now tied to a large cluster of infections. Police said a university professor who had arranged shelter for Indonesians was also arrested. They were booked on charges of violating the Foreigners Act and colluding by sheltering foreigners and shielding information about them from the police. The government has blamed the Muslim missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat for a surge in virus infections. India has 18,601 coronavirus cases, more than 4,200 linked to the missionary meeting.