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A passenger is surrounded as she disembarks the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. Photo: EPA

Coronavirus: Japan scientist stands by ‘chaotic’ criticism of cruise ship quarantine

  • Infectious disease specialist Kentaro Iwata had described the Diamond Princess as ‘completely inadequate in terms of infection control’
  • He made the comments in two now-deleted videos, which he posted to YouTube following a brief visit to the ship on Tuesday
A Japanese scientist on Thursday stood by his criticism of quarantine procedures he witnessed on the coronavirus-riddled Diamond Princess cruise ship, but said he removed videos he had posted online voicing his concerns after he was assured conditions on board had improved.

Kentaro Iwata, a specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University Hospital, posted the videos on YouTube after a brief visit to the ship on Tuesday. In them, he slammed the “completely chaotic” procedures on board and described the ship as “completely inadequate in terms of infection control”.

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The now-deleted videos were viewed more than a million times in Japanese and hundreds of thousands of times in English.

It was a rare example of criticism from a Japanese official and the country’s health ministry lashed out in defence, saying it had conducted “consultations on appropriate infection control in the ship” with experts and taken a range of measures.

It also released a video showing passengers how to wash and disinfect their hands properly and had “proper hygiene management” for medical workers entering and coming off the ship.

In addition, risky and safe areas were strictly divided and there was a station installed for safely removing contaminated gear, the ministry said.

“We’ve been doing our best in the circumstances,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told MPs on Thursday morning.

Iwata, who spent several hours on the ship on Tuesday, had alleged there was “no distinction” between the green zone, which is free of infection, and the red zone, which is potentially contaminated by the virus.

Passengers wait to be picked up after disembarking the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess. photo: Reuters

“I was in Africa dealing with the Ebola outbreak. I was in other countries dealing with the cholera outbreak. I was in China in 2003 to deal with Sars … I never had a fear of getting infection myself,” he said in the videos in English and Japanese.

“But inside Diamond Princess, I was so scared … because there was no way to tell where the virus is.”

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In a conference call on Thursday, however, Iwata said he “was very happy to hear” that “a significant improvement of the zoning was done”, adding he was also pleased that Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases had released new information showing which passengers contracted the virus before and after the ship went under quarantine on February 5.

The fresh data indicated the risk of new infections from disembarking passengers was “tremendously reduced” he said, although some risk remained.

Passengers talk to each other from the balconies of their cabins on board the cruise ship. Photo: AFP

Iwata said he took down his videos to avoid further “misunderstanding and unnecessary division” since his concerns had been addressed and it was not his intention to attack anyone personally.

At least 621 passengers and crew from the Diamond Princess have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, making it easily the biggest cluster outside China, where more than 2,000 of the 74,000-plus people infected so far have died.

On Wednesday, 443 passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative for the virus and not showing symptoms during a 14-day quarantine period. The complete removal of the passengers was expected to last at least three days.

More passengers left the ship on Thursday, packing into yellow buses and leaving for stations and airports for home. Evacuation flights have been organised by Hong Kong, the United States, Australia, South Korea and others.
Kentaro Iwata in a still image taken from one of his now-deleted videos. Photo: Reuters

Outside the Diamond Princess, Japan has seen 84 cases including one death.

Iwata insisted on Thursday his quarantine concerns had been valid at the time, as conditions had “changed significantly” since his visit two days ago.

He further called for passengers and crew who had tested negative for the virus to nevertheless undergo “soft isolation” so as to prevent its spread.

“You need to have some sort of monitoring for the next 14 days at least, and ideally in an isolated environment,” he said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse