Thousands of ship's crew and passengers were held in quarantine aboard two cruise ships after an outbreak of coronavirus on Wednesday, as the number of confirmed cases globally neared 25,000 with the overwhelming majority still in China.
As the global death toll from the coronavirus neared 500, 10 suspected coronavirus patients were taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship to a coast guard vessel in Japan, which took them to shore where they were taken by ambulance to isolation wards.
More than 3,700 people remain on board, and will have to stay there under quarantine for the 14-day coronavirus incubation period.
In all, 273 people aboard the Diamond Princess either had symptoms of respiratory illness or had had contact with a man who left the ship in Hong Kong, only to be confirmed as suffering from coronavirus. They will now be tested for the virus.
A similar fate befell a second cruise ship, the World Dream, that was denied permission to berth in Taiwan's port city of Kaohsiung.
The ship arrived in Hong Kong on Wednesday, but the more than 3,600 passengers and crew were denied permission to disembark at the city's Kai Tak terminal.
Some 90 percent of passengers were Hong Kong residents. Three crew members had developed a fever and 30 had reported other symptoms. All are being tested for the coronavirus, according to the city's chief port health officer, Leung Yiu-hong.
Checks carried out
Officials from Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection boarded the ship at Kai Tak on Wednesday morning to carry out checks on the 1,800 passengers and around 1,800 crew members still on board.
The quarantine came after eight former World Dream cruise passengers who disembarked from the vessel in late January tested positive for the coronavirus. There are concerns that crew members who came into contact with them could also be carrying the virus, as the 14-day incubation period has yet to expire.
Leung said that those still on board were having their temperature checked and were filling out health declaration forms, but wouldn't be allowed to leave.
"We'd like to see the result of our quarantine measures and the epidemiological investigation to see whether we need more stringent measures," Leung told reporters.
"So we can't say for the time being when the quarantine measures are likely to end," he said.
As reporters looked on from the dock, passengers stood and shouted down.
"I'm almost out of face masks," shouted one. "I'm scared," shouted another. Another simply said: "I want to go home."
No choice but to comply
A passenger who gave only a nickname Rex said he had no choice but to comply, however.
"I have to take this calmly, because we have to cooperate with epidemic controls," he said. "If they need to isolate us, then we have no choice."
"I do know that some of the staff who clean the cabins have been coughing," he said. "Most of us are just waiting in our cabins now."
A spokesperson for Star Dream Cruises, the company that owns World Dream, said the vessel had returned to its home port in Hong Kong after being denied permission to berth in Kaohsiung.
Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the advisory committee on communicable diseases at the Hong Kong Medical Association, said the virus could circulate very quickly in a closed environment like a cruise ship.
"Any Hong Kong people who had planned to go on a cruise should give careful consideration to canceling their plans in the wake of the epidemic," Leung said.
The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has called on world governments to raise U.S.$675 million to help countries fight the epidemic.
"It's much less than the bill we will face if we do not invest in preparedness now," Tedros told a news conference on Wednesday.
New hospital built
Meanwhile, authorities in the worst-hit Chinese city of Wuhan began moving patients into a brand new hospital built in just 10 days.
The 1,000-bed facility was built from prefabricated units and comprises wards and isolation rooms. Another 1,500-bed hospital is due to open its doors to patients on Thursday.
More than 3,000 beds have been provided in public spaces to treat patients with mild symptoms, after citizen journalists reported massive overcrowding in Wuhan's hospitals, with patients routinely being sent back home without receiving a diagnosis.
Chinese researchers have also applied for a national patent on an experimental drug developed by Gilead Sciences that they believe might fight the novel coronavirus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology applied for a patent in China for the use of the antiviral drug, known as remdesivir, in conjunction with a military academy.
The drug is being rushed into trials in China on coronavirus patients after showing early signs of being highly effective, the company said.
Chinese scientists said they have found Gilead’s remdesivir, and chloroquine, an 80-year-old malaria drug, “highly effective” in laboratory studies.
Reported by Man Hoi-Tsan, Lu Xi and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.