First Coronavirus Case in Israel, Cruise Ship Passenger Tests Positive

Health Ministry says infected woman is in quarantine, while other 11 returning passengers from cruise that was quarantined off Japan test negative

One of the rooms where Israelis considered at risk of having contracted coronavirus will stay at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, on February 21, 2020.
Heidi Levine,AP

The first case of the novel coronavirus was diagnosed in Israel, after a passenger from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been quarantined off the coast of Japan tested positive for the virus on Friday.

The woman diagnosed with the virus is one of 11 Israelis who were aboard the ship, which was quarantined for two weeks by Japanese authorities. The Health Ministry said the other Israelis' tests were negative.

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The ministry said the woman is under quarantine and being monitored, and that the infection did not occur in Israel.

The passenger who arrived in Israel on Friday are to be held in quarantine for two weeks. Four passengers identified as carriers of the virus remain hospitalized in Japan.

Those who have returned are held in a quarantine area that is not connected to the hospital's sewage, water and ventilation systems. Their luggage is also being held separately, with relatives bringing necessary belongings to the hospital.  

Passengers from the Diamond Princess arrive at Sheba Medical Center.
Sheba Medical Center

Over 600 people were infected with the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with two dying after being taken offboard. 

In this case, the government knew ahead of time that a small group with a high risk of being infected was arriving in the country, after receiving preliminary examinations in Japan. The question is how the health system will handle a situation of wider infection. Just in the past week, 5,000 Israelis have returned from the list of countries where the virus is endemic, according to the Health Ministry. 

After disembarking from the ship, and before boarding the plane to Israel, all passengers underwent an examination to check for the virus. The examination involves taking a throat and nostril culture. The cultures are checked in a laboratory where they are scanned for the presence of genetic viral material.  All the Israelis in this group had the RNA test before boarding the plane and the results came back negative for all. The explanation for why the woman wasn’t diagnosed with the virus at that point might have to do with a false positive result which sometimes occurs in these tests, or it is possible he contracted the virus during the flight.

Experts on infections say the degree of risk of contagion and spread of the illness is low because this group of Israelis are being treated and monitored by a special team and those who come into contact with them can also be monitored and isolated.

“There may be a few more local cases but that doesn’t put the country at risk of a local outbreak,” one of the experts in vaccinations said.

He said that what is worrisome is if people start to develop cases of the virus that cannot be traced to China. “In the past day we have received reports of dozens of cases of people catching the virus in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore whose illnesses cannot be linked to China and there’s a local outbreak whose source is not clear and this places the world at risk.  The assessment is that in the coming weeks we will begin  to see more than a small number of countries in which  there is a communicability that cannot be brought under control by isolation, monitoring and quarantine. This will also happen in Israel.  Will we be able to shut its gates to all these countries? Or some of them: It will be very tough to stop it,” the expert says, and adds:

“The spotlight is now on Sheba Medical Center but the real risk isn’t there, but rather in countries where there is already a local transmission taking place.” 

He said that analysis of the cases where the virus was transmitted to other people in Japan shows, no symptoms were seen in half the cases, which makes it more difficult to expose the spread of the virus.

“There are models for the spread of an epidemic and the speed with which it happens. They show that there are things you cannot control. The more our knowledge of the cases advance, the more we learn about these cases, the more it seems to be advancing in the direction of an epidemic. Our eyes are now focused on two places: the summer months in which the number of people contracting the virus may decline, and toward developing a vaccine that will take at least several months’ time,” the expert said.

Iran meanwhile reported two deaths and said the fatalities were from among 13 new confirmed cases of the virus in Iran.

After authorities reported two earlier deaths this week, the death toll from COVID-19, the illness caused by virus, stands at four in Iran.

So far, 18 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the four who died.

The spokesman of the health ministry, Kianoush Jahanpour, said the newly detected cases are all linked with city of Qom where the first two elderly patients died on Wednesday.

Jahanpour said the new cases were either from Qom or had visited the city recently. He said four of them are hospitalized in the capital, Tehran, and two in northern province of Gilan.

Concerns over the spread of the virus, which originated in central China, prompted authorities in Iran to close all schools and Shiite seminaries in Qom.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.