Malaysia: Second Test Confirms Virus in Ship Passenger Cleared by Cambodia

Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
200216-MY-thermalscan-1000.jpg A health official watches travelers on a thermographic monitor at a cruise ship terminal in Port Klang, Malaysia, amid worldwide concerns about the spread of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Feb. 13, 2020.

A second test confirmed that an elderly American woman, who had traveled on a cruise ship allowed to dock in Cambodia, was accurately diagnosed with the coronavirus upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur on a flight from Phnom Penh, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister said Sunday.

The Cambodian government and the cruise ship’s operator asked Malaysian authorities to retest the 83-year-old U.S. citizen after Malaysia’s health ministry announced Saturday that the woman had initially tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“This is not the case of a false positive. I repeat, the result is still positive for the wife, negative for the husband,” Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said in a statement.

The unidentified American woman is the first confirmed case of a person diagnosed with the virus after being aboard the ship, the M.V. Westerdam. It set sail from Hong Kong on Feb. 1 but was prevented from docking in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Guam over concerns that its more than 2,200 passengers and crew could be infected with the mystery virus, which originated in China’s Hubei province.

On Feb. 13, health authorities in Cambodia – a close ally of China – allowed the ship to dock at the port of Sihanoukville after declaring its more than 2,200 passengers and crew free of the mystery virus, which first broke out in the Chinese province of Hubei.

Cambodian authorities allowed the passengers and crew to begin disembarking from the ship on Friday.

The Ministry of Health said it cleared them for disembarkation after it “conducted thorough health examinations on the Westerdam’s passengers and crewmembers,” and had worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in doing so, according to Agence Kampuchea Presse, the state news agency.

The Holland America Line, the ship’s operator, said it had screened all 2,257 passengers and crew for illness – but no one displayed a fever – and disembarking passengers were screened a second time as well as asked to fill out a health questionnaire.

The passports of everyone onboard the Westerdam were also reviewed to “ensure no one had traveled through mainland China in the 14 days prior to the cruise,” the company said in a statement Sunday.

“During the voyage there was no indication of COVID-19 on the ship,” Holland America said after Malaysia announced that the woman had tested positive a second time for the virus.

“The guest who tested positive did not visit the ship’s medical center to report any symptoms of illness.”

So far, no other passengers or crew on the ship or on their way home had shown signs of the illness, the shipping line said, adding it was working with Malaysian and Cambodian authorities, along with WHO and the CDC, to deal with the situation.

“We are in close coordination with some of the leading health experts from around the world,” said Dr. Grant Tarling, chief medical officer for the Holland America Line. “These experts are working with the appropriate national health authorities to investigate and follow-up with individuals who may have come in contact the guest.”

Malaysia bars entry to other passengers from ship

The American woman and her husband were both first tested after showing symptoms while being screened at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, where they and 143 other passengers from the ship had arrived on a chartered Malaysia Airlines flight on Friday while heading back to their home countries, Malaysian officials said.

Three other chartered flights that were scheduled to bring more passengers from the ship as they transited home via Kuala Lumpur have since been canceled over public health safety concerns, Malaysia authorities said.

The Malaysian government confirmed that “no additional passengers from the Westerdam will be allowed entry into Malaysia,” the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said in a statement posted on its website Sunday.

“Upon their arrival, the Malaysian health authorities have conducted health screenings on all passengers, where an American couple was detected through the thermal scanner of having symptoms and they were immediately taken to the Sungai Buloh Hospital for further checks,” Wan Azizah said.

The American woman had a cough but no fever or difficulty breathing, and an X-ray scan revealed she had signs of pneumonia, the deputy prime minister said.

The woman and her 85-year-old husband, who tested negative for COVID-19, were both being treated at a local hospital, Wan Azizah said, noting that the man was diagnosed with a bacterial infection.

Of the other 143 passengers on the charter flight that brought the American couple to Malaysia, 137 had departed the country after undergoing health screenings, officials said. The remaining six – four U.S. citizens and two Dutch nationals – were cleared for departure late Sunday after testing negative for the virus, Noor Hisham Abdullah, Malaysia’s director-general of health, said in a news release.

22 cases

The case of the infected American woman brought to 22 the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Malaysia.

That number includes two other cases that were also confirmed by the health ministry on Saturday but unconnected to the woman who had traveled aboard the Westerdam.

The 21st case is a 32-year-old Chinese citizen married to a Malaysian man and living in Malaysia. Between Jan. 22 and Jan. 30, she traveled to China to visit relatives, and tested positive for the coronavirus after complaining of a sore throat, officials said.

The 20th case was identified as a 27-year-old male Chinese national who was first detected with fever by a thermal scanner as he crossed into Malaysia from Thailand at the overland border crossing in Kedah state, the health ministry said.

On Saturday, Thailand confirmed its 34th case of the coronavirus, a 35-year-old Thai female health care worker who got the virus through contact with a patient, authorities said.

According to the latest information released from WHO on Sunday, the number of COVID-19 cases has topped 51,800 cases in 25 countries, with the vast majority concentrated in China. At least 1,669 people have died from the virus, which the U.N.’s health agency has declared a global emergency.

As of Sunday, neither Indonesia, the most populous country in Southeast Asia, or Bangladesh had confirmed any cases of the virus on their territory.

Last week, Terawan Agus Putranto, Indonesia’s health minister, pushed back against research by a Harvard University professor, Marc Lipsitch, who had suggested in a study that Indonesia was possibly underreporting the coronavirus situation. The minister described the Harvard report as “insulting.”

On Saturday, hundreds of citizens from both Indonesia and Bangladesh, who had been evacuated from Hubei province, were allowed to return home after being quarantined for two weeks on home soil after being evacuated by plane from Wuhan – the provincial capital and epicenter of the outbreak – reports said.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, which has recorded three cases – including the first death from coronavirus outside of China – President Rodrigo Duterte’s government said it was considering evacuating hundreds of Filipinos who were part of the crew on the virus-stricken Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that had been quarantined for two weeks off Japan.

On Sunday, Japanese health authorities announced that 70 new cases of COVID-19 aboard the ship docked in Yokohama had been confirmed, bringing the total number of cases aboard the Diamond Princess to 355 – the largest concentration outside of China.


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