TOKYO (Reuters) - A taxi driver in Tokyo has tested positive for the coronavirus, NHK public TV reported, marking a further spread of the disease in Japan even as authorities said some passengers aboard a ship quarantined off its coast would finally be allowed to disembark.
The broadcaster, quoting sources, said the health ministry was trying to trace the route of the contagion, adding that the driver said he had carried passengers who appeared to be Chinese.
No further details were immediately available, including word on the condition of the man, who NHK said was in his 70s. The case is likely to raise further concerns about the spread of the flu-like virus given how many people a city taxi driver has likely been in contact with.
The news came after Japan said it would allow some elderly passengers on the quarantined cruise liner who test negative for the new coronavirus to disembark ahead of schedule and another 44 new cases were confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said elderly passengers who have pre-existing conditions or are in windowless rooms would be allowed to leave starting from Friday, rather than the originally targeted date of Feb. 19, and complete their quarantine ashore.
With the number of those infected on the cruise ship now up to 218 plus one quarantine officer, concerns have been raised about conditions on the ship, where about 3,500 people remain on board.
The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Feb. 3 after a man who disembarked from the liner in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus that has now killed more than 1,350 in mainland China.
About 80% of the ship passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to Japanese media. The ship typically has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.
Separately, NHK also reported on Thursday what a doctor in central Japan had tested positive for the virus. It was not immediately clear whether he had any connection to China.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen countries and territories besides China, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
Japanese nationals who have been staying in hotels or other facilities since returning on four charter flights from China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, have begun going home.
All 197 people from a Jan. 29 flight who tested negative were either home or en route and another 200 or so from a second flight could head home later on Thursday, NHK said.
Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Alex Richardson