Egypt says cruise ship quarantined over new virus cluster

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LUXOR, Egypt (AP) -- A cruise ship on Egypt’s Nile River with over 150 tourists and local crew was in quarantine Saturday in the southern city of Luxor, after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus.

A Taiwanese-American tourist who had previously been on the same ship tested positive when she returned to Taiwan. The World Health Organization informed Egyptian authorities, who tested everyone currently on the ship. 

Health authorities found a dozen of the ship’s Egyptian crew members had contracted the fast-spreading virus but did not show symptoms, according to a statement Friday.

The statement said the 12 will be transferred to isolation in a hospital on Egypt’s north coast. The passengers -- who include Americans, French and other nationalities -- and the crew will remain quarantined on the ship awaiting further test results.

Egyptian authorities have been tight-lipped about the virus outbreak, previously reporting only three confirmed cases. That’s even as the wider Mideast now has over 6,000 confirmed cases.

In hard-hit Iran, the Health Ministry said Saturday that 21 more people had died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 145. More than 1,000 infections were also confirmed overnight, bringing the total to 5,823 cases nationwide.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 16,000 cases were hospitalized across the country, with some still being tested or monitored to see if they had contracted the virus. The capital of Tehran had the most infections, with more than 1,500 cases, followed by the Shiite holy city of Qom with 668 and the northern Mazandaran province with 606 cases.

Among the dead was Fatemeh Rahabar, a 55-year-old newly elected lawmaker who passed away in Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Saturday. She’d been elected to the next parliament that begins work in May. Earlier this week, Iranian lawmaker Abdolreza Mesri told state television that 23 members in the current parliament had the coronavirus and urged all lawmakers to avoid the public.

The new cases in Egypt came just days after three people were diagnosed with coronavirus in the U.S. state of Texas. Officials in the city of Houston said Thursday that they believe the three were exposed to the virus while on a trip to Egypt in late February.

It was not immediately clear if the Texan tourists were on the same boat where the cluster occurred, how long the passengers on the ship had been quarantined, nor where exactly the initial Taiwanese tourist had contracted the virus.

The new and fast-spreading coronavirus could deliver a major blow to Egypt’s tourism industry. The government has been struggling for years to revive the vital sector following the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising. 

Other countries around the world have closed schools and universities, while also cancelling major art, sporting and business events.

Egypt does not appear to have taken any of these types of measures, and Friday’s discovery of the 12 cases coincided with the opening day of the Luxor African Film Festival.

“It’s still unclear how many people came in contact with the group in the infected ship,” said a senior police officer in Luxor. Cruise ships on the Nile often dock side by side, with passengers getting on and off by walking through several other vessels. 

“No one knows the extent of this,” the officer added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to reporters.

A young man who works on cruise ships said many have left their work after the incident, fearing infection.

The country’s national air carrier, Egypt Air, has suspended direct flights to China since late January. The virus, which originated in China, has infected more than 100,000 people globally. 

The previous two cases in Egypt were a Chinese and a Canadian national, then an Egyptian who was in Serbia and had stayed for 12 hours in France before arriving in Cairo. Egyptian authorities said Friday that tests on over 2,500 people came back negative for the virus.

Elsewhere in the region, the United Arab Emirates reported 15 additional coronavirus cases on Saturday, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 45. 

The UAE is a major tourist destination and most of its residents are foreigners. The emirate of Dubai is also home to the world’s busiest airport for international travel. Authorities have urged residents and citizens not to take unnecessary trips abroad, and to expect screenings and possible quarantines upon return.

To stymie the spread of the virus, the UAE has suspended schools, nurseries and universities for a month. It has also stopped flights to Iran and limited flights to China. 

The UAE’s Health Ministry said 13 of the new cases had recently arrived from abroad, and they include three Emirati citizens, two Saudis, two Ethiopians and two Iranians, as well as a person each from Thailand, China, Morocco and India. The statement gave no further details on where the travelers had come, when they had arrived to the UAE and which ports of entry they had come in from. 

The other two cases, an Emirati and an Egyptian, were diagnosed after being monitored in connection with a cycling tour in the country that was halted a week ago. 

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, announced there would be no spectators for sports competitions and games starting Saturday in order to combat the spread of the virus. The kingdom has five confirmed cases, but has taken unprecedented measures against the virus’ spread, including halting all pilgrimage in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Tehran’s mosques authority banned any collective prayer and religious ceremonies in Tehran’s mosques starting Saturday. They’ll still remain open individual prayers.
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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.

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