Coronavirus on cruise 'could spread room to room through air conditioning'

A doctor has warned coronavirus could potentially spread through air conditioning on a cruise ship struck down by the deadly disease.

Another 44 people aboard the Diamond Princess tested positive for coronavirus today, bringing the total number of cases to 218, making it the largest outbreak outside mainland China.

The cruise liner has been docked in Japan’s Yokohama since February 4, but questions are being asked about the lock-down.

Tropical disease specialist Dr Richard Dawood said coronavirus could spread if air is moving along ducts between cabins.

He told ‘It depends on the particular system that’s used.

‘Some air conditioners are simply cooling units in their rooms,’ he added. ‘And I wouldn’t expect that to do it.

‘But if air is being ducted between one part of the ship to another then that could possible be a factor.’

Princess Cruises has said there is no current evidence to suggest the virus spreads through air-handling systems.

In a Q&A on its website, the company said the heating ventilation air-conditioning (HVAC) used on their ships are similar to ones in hotels.

When asked if coronavirus can spread through the HVAC system, Princess Cruises said: ‘According to a letter recently sent to cruise ship passengers and crew members onboard cruise ships by Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the US  CDC, there is no current evidence to suggest that the virus spreads through air-handling systems.

‘Staying in your room and limiting contact with other people are the best ways to minimize exposure.’

Dr Dawood, from London’s Fleet Street Clinic, said the quarantined passengers stand a better chance of not catching the disease if they had been quarantined on land.

He said: ‘Even if you have a small number of people infected with flu, it can spread throughout the ship.

‘That’s why we always advise flu vaccinations for people going on ships.’

He added: ‘A lot of the time it’s a shared airspace so it’s very difficult to stop an airborne virus of that kind from spreading.

‘They should probably have been taken off the ship and held in isolation somewhere else.

‘With such a large number of passengers it would have been difficult logistically, but I would not be surprised if there are even more cases on board.’

The Japanese authorities have said elderly passengers could be moved off the ship if they test negative for the virus, and be quarantined in government housing instead.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato said: ‘On the ship, there are those of advanced age and with pre-existing conditions.

‘There are also those who are having to stay in rooms with no windows until the incubation period finishes.

‘We will conduct… tests for those who are high-risk and if they test negative, those who wish to disembark can go and live in a lodging facility that the government will prepare.’

The spiralling number of cases has caused panic among some passengers, who have tried to keep their spirits up amid the growing coronavirus crisis.

British passengers David and Sally Abel told Good Morning Britain today that people on the ship were starting to feel worried about being split up from their loved ones if they test positive for the disease.

Mr Abel said: ‘It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been married, couples have been separated.

‘Elderly couples, one I understand in their eighties, have been split up. It’s very very worrying for those on board.’

Mrs Abel added: ‘We’ve been together 50 years and the thought of one of us being positive and one not and being split is very scary.’

However, others are choosing to stay calm and have defended the cruise liner’s ‘A-plus’ handling of the outbreak.

Matthew Smith, from California, said leaving the ship might be an attractive option for those with an interior cabin, but he was choosing to stay put in his suite

He tweeted: ‘For those in the Twitter-verse who continue to believe passengers on the ship are not safe: You have no basis for concluding that the virus had spread since the quarantine was imposed. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.’

Medics initially screened all 3,711 passengers after a man in his 80s who had left the ship tested positive for coronavirus in January.

Nearly 300 people were selected for further tests because they showed symptoms or had contact with known patients, resulting in 61 initial positive tests.

Since then, the tests have expanded to those who had contact with the infected passengers, producing a spiralling number of cases.

Three Brits are known to be among the 218 people infected so far, including honeymooner Alan Steele who was taken to hospital on the mainland.

15 crew members have also fallen ill with the novel disease, 11 of whom are from the Philippines.

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