The government confirmed Tuesday the first case of human-to-human transmission in Japan of a deadly new virus, while it also sent its first plane to repatriate citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak.
A Japanese bus driver in his 60s living in Nara Prefecture, western Japan, who has never been to Wuhan but had transported tourists who were from there, was among three more people found infected on Tuesday with the new coronavirus. The latest cases brought a national tally of confirmed infections to seven.
A chartered plane, a wide-body Boeing 767 operated by All Nippon Airways Co., arrived in the city in Hubei Province, central China, at around 11:30 p.m. local time to evacuate some 200 Japanese nationals staying there.
The government has been stepping up efforts to prevent the deadly strain of coronavirus from spreading further within Japan, classifying it as a "designated infectious disease" that allows steps to quarantine patients.
(Toshimitsu Motegi speaks to the media)
The infected bus driver twice this month transported tourists who were from Wuhan, health minister Katsunobu Kato said.
He drove 31 passengers from Osaka to Tokyo from Jan. 8 to 11 and made the return trip from Jan. 12 to 16 with 29 passengers, an official from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said at a press conference. None of the tourists had shown clear symptoms of infection and have already returned to China, the official said.
The bus driver developed symptoms including a cough on Jan. 14 and went to a hospital in Nara three days later but was not diagnosed with pneumonia until Saturday. He is currently hospitalized in stable condition.
The health ministry also confirmed two more cases, a man and a woman both in their 40s and visiting from Wuhan. The man was diagnosed with pneumonia in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, while the woman was diagnosed on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
Concerns over the virus spreading in the country have heightened during the Lunar New holiday, which is expected to bring an influx of Chinese travelers.
The death toll from the new virus has topped 100 in China, local authorities said Tuesday. Globally, the pneumonia-causing virus has infected more than 4,500 people.
The chartered flight will deliver 20,000 face masks and 50 sets of protective suits requested by China and return to Tokyo's Haneda airport on Wednesday morning, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.
Medical personnel boarded the plane to check on passengers, who will be being asked to stay home for two weeks and report to the nearest health center if they develop symptoms.
Chinese authorities sent word that they had finished preparations to receive the plane, and arrangements have been made for Japanese nationals to travel to the airport despite the city of 11 million being on virtual lockdown since last week, Motegi said.
Roughly 650 people had asked to be evacuated as of Tuesday morning, and more flights are being planned to accommodate them, he added.
The dispatch comes as other countries have also been in negotiations with China to help their citizens fly out of Wuhan.
A U.S. chartered flight will arrive in the city possibly Tuesday night to evacuate American diplomats and citizens, according to a U.S. government source. South Korea said it plans to send planes on Thursday and Friday.
The decision by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet to classify pneumonia caused by the virus as a "designated infectious disease" will allow the compulsory hospitalization of infected patients, as well as restrict them from going to work and require disinfection of sites where the virus has been detected.
Taxpayer money will be used to pay for the medical treatment of those subject to forced hospitalization. About 400 specified medical institutions across Japan will be able to provide treatment.
An ordinance on the designation will be implemented on Feb. 7, according to Japanese officials. The government also said anyone traveling who is suspected of having the virus must, under the quarantine law, have a medical checkup at their point of arrival in Japan.
The designation, the fifth of its kind and the first since the 2014 spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, also requires doctors to report any patients who test positive for the coronavirus.
"We will take all possible measures to prevent the spread of infections," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference.
The same emergency steps were also taken in the past for other infectious diseases designated by the government as Class II such as MERS and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Under the law, infectious diseases are divided into five classes depending on their severity.
As of last week, about 710 Japanese were registered as staying in Hubei Province, whose capital is Wuhan. Japanese Embassy officials have been trying to determine how many wish to return home, and the number could grow.