Japan on Friday reported 41 new cases of a virus on a quarantined cruise ship and turned away another luxury liner while the death toll in mainland China rose to 636, including a doctor who got in trouble with authorities in the communist country for sounding an early warning about the disease threat.
Following an online uproar over the government's treatment of Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, the ruling Communist Party said it was sending an investigation team to “fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public” regarding the case.
Two docked cruise ships with thousands of passengers and crew members remained under 14-day quarantines in Hong Kong and Japan.
Before Friday's 41 confirmed cases, 20 infected passengers were escorted off the Diamond Princess at Yokohama near Tokyo. About 3,700 people have been confined aboard the ship.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that Japan will deny entry of foreign passengers on another cruise ship — Holland America's cruise ship Westerdam, on its way to Okinawa from Hong Kong — because of suspected virus patients found on board. The Seattle-based operator denied anyone had virus.
Abe said the new immigration policy takes effect Friday to ensure border control to prevent the disease from entering and spreading further into Japan.
The ship with more than 2,000 people was currently near Ishigaki, one of Okinawa's outer islands, and was seeking another port, said Overseas Travel Agency official Mie Matsubara.
"Everyone is starting to reject the ship and we are getting desperate," she said. “We hope we can go somewhere so that passengers can land.”
At least four other cruise ships, two foreign and two Japanese-operated, are headed to Japan by the end of the month, Transport Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said, urging port authorities around the country to turn them away.
Dr. Li had worked at a hospital in the epicenter of the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan. He was one of eight medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, writing on his Twitter-like Weibo account that on Dec. 3 he saw a test sample that indicated the presence of a coronavirus similar to SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in a 2002-2003 outbreak that the government initially tried to cover-up.
Li wrote that after he reported seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on Jan. 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread falsehoods and warning him of punishment if he continued.
A copy of the statement signed by Li and posted online accused him of making “false statements” and “seriously disturbing social order.”
“This is a type of illegal behavior!” the statement said.
Li wrote that he developed a cough on Jan. 10, fever on Jan. 11 and was hospitalized on Jan. 12, after which he began having trouble breathing.
He also wrote that he had not in fact had his medical license revoked, a reference to the sort of extrajudicial retaliation the communist authorities meet out to rights lawyers and others seen as troublemakers.
“Please rest easy, I will most certainly actively cooperate with the treatment and seek to obtain an early discharge!” Li wrote on Jan. 31. He posted again on Feb. 1, saying he had been confirmed as having the virus.
On Friday, the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper and usual staunch defender of the authorities, reported that “many said the experience of the eight ‘whistleblowers’ was evidence of local authorities' incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus."
It quoted Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as telling the paper’s editor that “we should highly praise the eight Wuhan residents.”
"They were wise before the outbreak," Zeng was quoted as saying. The paper also cited online voices saying local authorities owe Li an apology. It quoted one posting as saying, "We lost a hero." “If his warning could send an alarm, the outbreak might not have continued to worsen,” the posting said.
“Looking back, his professional sense of vigilance in particular is worthy of our respect,” the paper said in an editorial.
The police action against the eight whistleblowers also garnered a rare and extremely subtle rebuke from the nation’s highest court. “We have the responsibility to express to society our legal thoughts about solving the problem of rumors,” a posting on the court’s Weibo account said.
Meanwhile, a newborn discovered infected 36 hours after birth has become the youngest known patient. Doctors said other infected mothers have given birth to babies who tested negative, so it is not yet known if the virus can be transmitted in the womb.
China's state media said Friday that President Xi Jinping urged the U.S. to “respond reasonably" to the virus outbreak in a phone call with President Donald Trump.
“A people’s war against the virus has been launched," Xi was quoted as saying by broadcaster CCTV, using timeworn communist terminology. “We hope the U.S. side can assess the epidemic in a calm manner and adopt and adjust its response measures in a reasonable way."
Beijing has complained that the U.S. was flying its citizens out of Wuhan but not providing any assistance to China.
The White House said Trump “expressed confidence in China’s strength and resilience in confronting the challenge" of the outbreak.
Wuhan has built two new prefabricated hospitals in recent weeks and is adapting gymnasiums, exhibition centers and other spaces for patients were milder symptoms. Thousands of additional military and civilian medical workers have been sent to the city.
Still, those inside that quarantine area encompassing a population of around 50 million speak of a medical system completely overwhelmed.
Chen Jiaxin, 22, told The Associated Press by phone from Wuhan that his father fell ill on Jan. 28 but had to return home because no hospital would accept him. When he called for an ambulance after his father's fever spiked on Thursday morning, Chen said he was told 400 people were waiting ahead of him.
“We were just told to wait and wait," Chen said.
Testing of a new antiviral drug was set to begin on a group of patients Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The drug, Remdesivir, is made by U.S. biotech company Gilead Sciences.
With the development of a vaccine months, or years, away, researchers are experimenting with the re-purposing of existing drugs used to treat viruses such as HIV.