British couple on Diamond Princess test positive for coronavirus

Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok
Photograph: David Abel/PA

A British couple who published video diaries from a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan say they have tested positive for the coronavirus, as the UK government announced plans to evacuate citizens from the ship.

David Abel wrote in a Facebook post: “There is going to be a time of quiet. We have been proved positive and leaving for hospital soon. Blessings all xxx.”

The Abels – David and his wife, Sally – have given regular updates to the media about conditions onboard the Diamond Princess, which has been quarantined off Japan since 3 February after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a later post, however, Abel, from Oxfordshire, said he doubted his diagnosis.

“Frankly I think this is a setup! We are NOT being taken to a hospital but a hostel. That’s where partners are sent waiting out their quarantine,” he wrote. “No phone, no wifi and no medical facilities. I really am smelling a very big rat here! Waiting for the transfer now.”

Asked in the comments below one of his posts whether he was sure the test was positive, he replied: “I doubt it was positive. If it was, we would be in hospital.”

The quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess anchored in Yokohama, near Tokyo

The quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess anchored in Yokohama.Photograph: Koji Sasahara/AP

 

The Abels’ reported positive diagnosis came as Japanese health authorities confirmed an additional 88 coronavirus infections on the Diamond Princess, bringing the total to 542. The ship accounts for the biggest cluster of cases outside mainland China.

The couple’s son, Steve Abel, said his parents were “not getting any communication” from the UK. “They are very high-spirited people,” he told BBC Breakfast, but added: “There are cracks in the armour and they are getting down. My mum breaks down in tears frequently, my dad is short-tempered. They are not getting any communication from our country, so they are in the dark and feeling very unloved.”

Some of the remaining quarantined passengers look out from the deck of the Diamond Princess on Tuesday. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Steve Abel told BBC Radio 5 live he was concerned that his father, who is diabetic, was not eating the right food, and called for his parents to be allowed to return home. “Whatever they have to go through next I would rather it be on UK soil,” he said. “They could be flown back asap and do whatever’s necessary here in a controlled environment. That’s what our family want.”

The virus causes only mild disease in four out of five people who get it, according to the World Health Organization, which said on Monday that analysis of data from Chinese authorities relating to 44,000 cases of Covid-19 – the name the disease has been given – in Hubei province suggested that 2% of cases were fatal.

What is the virus causing the illness that started Wuhan?

 

The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

 

What other coronaviruses have there been?

 

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

 

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

 

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

 

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

 

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere. As of 12 February there are now 45,182 confirmed cases and 1,115 deaths. There are cases in 28 other countries outside China, with deaths recorded in one case in Hong Kong, and one case in the Philippines. The number of people to have contracted the virus overall could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected.

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK has doubled from four to eight after four more people in Brighton were diagnosed with the infection over the weekend.

There are nine cases of the virus in the UK. Four were located in Brighton, one in London. At Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside 83 people in quarantine were told they would be allowed to leave on Thursday after they all tested negative. Of the 1,750 tests carried out so far in the UK, more than 99% had been negative.

 

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

 

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

 

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

 

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

 

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

 

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

 

The British government, which has come under mounting pressure to fly citizens home, said on Tuesday morning it was “working to organise a flight” to evacuate citizens stranded on the Diamond Princess.

David Abel is among those who have criticised the UK government’s response, and had appealed to Richard Branson to help evacuate British citizens. The US flew more than 300 US citizens out on Sunday, while Canada, Australia, Italy, South Korea and Israel have all made plans to evacuate their citizens.

US citizens wave from a bus as they leave the cruise ship to be repatriated on Monday. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

For the past two weeks, passengers have been mostly confined to their cabins, where meals are brought to them by staff in masks and protective clothing.

Experts are still racing to understand the ease with which the virus has spread, but some have raised concerns that quarantine conditions imposed on the ship appeared to be backfiring.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement on Tuesday: “Given the conditions onboard, we are working to organise a flight back to the UK for British nationals on the Diamond Princess as soon as possible.

“Our staff are contacting British nationals onboard to make the necessary arrangements. We urge all those who have not yet responded to get in touch immediately.”

 

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

 

On Monday, a Downing Street spokesman said those onboard the ship, which is docked near Yokohama, were being contacted about the possibility of a repatriation flight.

Related: Senior Wuhan doctor dies from coronavirus as authorities start to 'round up' patients

It is not clear if those evacuated will be required to self-isolate once they return home, though on Monday a Holiday Inn at Heathrow airport was block-booked to be used as a quarantine facility in anticipation of more potential coronavirus cases arriving in the UK.

In a YouTube video on Monday, David Abel had spoken about the mental strain that the crisis had placed on those affected. “It’s all getting to us now – not just me, other passengers as well. It’s the not-knowing factor that is the real challenge,” he said.

He said he had packed a bag just in case he was confirmed to have the virus, adding that he had heard that another passenger simply got a knock on her cabin door and was “frogmarched off” to hospital.

At least four other Britons confirmed to have the virus are receiving hospital treatment in Japan.