Americans disembark from virus-hit cruise in Japanese port

A member of the Japan Self-Defense Forces walks next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where people are quarantined onboard due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port, on February 16, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 17 February 2020

Americans disembark from virus-hit cruise in Japanese port

  • The evacuation coincided with stepped-up warnings from Japanese authorities over the deadly outbreak
  • US, others, to send aircraft for citizens on cruise ship

SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Feb 16 : American passengers were taken off a cruise liner on Sunday to fly home after being quarantined for two weeks off Japan, while China said the rate of new coronavirus cases had slowed, calling that proof its steps to fight the outbreak were working.
An announcement on the public address system aboard the Diamond Princess, where 3,700 passengers and crew have been held since Feb. 3, told Americans to get ready to disembark on Sunday evening for charter flights home. Passengers wearing masks could later be seen waving through the windows of buses parked near the ship.
More than 40 infected Americans from the cruise will stay in Japan for treatment, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“They are not going to go anywhere. They’re going to be in hospitals in Japan,” Fauci told the CBS News program “Face the Nation.” “People who have symptoms will not be able to get on the evacuation plane. Others are going to be evacuated starting imminently to air force bases in the United States.”
Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow soon, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.
“Leaving in a few hours. No details. Might be going to Texas or Nebraska,” US passenger Gay Courter told Reuters.
Seventy new coronavirus cases were confirmed on board, bringing the total on the ship to 355, by far the largest cluster of cases outside China. Fauci told the Washington Post there were 44 infected Americans.
Within China, authorities reported 2,009 new cases on Sunday, noting that this was down from more than 2,600 the previous day. They said this showed their efforts to halt the spread of the virus were bearing fruit.
“The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” Mi Feng, spokesman for the Health Commission, told reporters.
The new cases brought the total to 68,500 in mainland China, with 1,665 deaths, including 143 fatalities reported on Sunday. Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who traveled from Chinese cities, with five deaths.
The coronavirus is thought to have emerged at a wildlife market in China’s central province of Hubei. China’s response has included putting Hubei and its capital Wuhan — a city of 11 million people — on virtual lockdown.
Mi said the proportion of confirmed cases who were critically ill had fallen to 21.6% on Saturday, from 32.4% on Jan. 27. He said this showed the authorities were able to treat patients more quickly, preventing cases from becoming critical.
Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Britain’s University of Edinburgh, said if the numbers suggested the epidemic has peaked in Hubei, “then this would be encouraging news for the rest of the world too.”
But he added: “We should be cautious though; it could simply be that reporting is not keeping up with events in circumstances where the health services are under enormous pressure.”
Declining numbers of reported new infections could mean the virus was being contained, but could also mean it was simply running out of susceptible new hosts in Wuhan, he said.
Restrictions were tightened further in Hubei on Sunday with vehicles, apart from essential services, banned from the roads and companies told to stay shut until further notice.
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But in some cities streets are still deserted.

HAZMAT SUITS
On board the Diamond Princess, American passenger Matthew Smith posted a photo on Twitter showing buses parked on the shore to transport US nationals. American officials in hazmat suits and masks had visited his room to check if he would disembark. He said he wanted to stay.
The ship, owned by Carnival Corp., has been held in the port of Yokohama and those with the disease have been taken to hospital in Japan. No one from the ship has died.
Countries that have announced plans to fly their citizens home from the ship say they will take them only if they are symptom-free, and quarantine them on arrival.
The US Department of Defense has said it is preparing to receive two flights with passengers — one to land at Travis Air Force Base, California and the other at Kelly Field/Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The evacuees would be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
Another cruise ship, Holland America’s MS Westerdam, docked in Cambodia on Thursday after being rejected by ports elsewhere. An 83-year-old American passenger tested positive upon arriving in Malaysia, authorities there said. A second test requested by the cruise operator confirmed the finding.
Taiwan reported its first fatality on Sunday. The first fatality in Europe was reported on Saturday, an 80-year-old Chinese man who died at a Paris hospital.
(Reporting by Stella Qiu and Muyu Xu in Beijing, Engen Tham and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Kevin Yao in Singapore, Ebrahim Harris in Kuala Lumpur, Cynthia Kim, Minwoo Park in Seoul, Kate Kelland in London, Doina Chiacu in Washington Writing by Peter Graff Editing by Frances Kerry)


Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

Updated 10 April 2020

Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

  • Team drew up its own product design and sent to MIT, Harvard University for approval

KABUL: A team of Afghan female robotics experts has developed a lifesaving ventilator, made from Toyota car parts, to help with the treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients.

The girls, who won a medal in a global competition for creating a robot that could distinguish between contaminated and clean water, were invited by the governor of the western Afghan city of Herat to try and build a version of the medical device due to a desperate shortage of ventilators in the province.

The impoverished region of war-torn Afghanistan has recently witnessed a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The team, aptly named the Afghan Dreamers, initially tried to source parts from abroad for an advanced digital machine, but high costs and flight suspensions caused by the pandemic made shipments to Afghanistan impossible.

Undaunted, the innovative group looked for supplies closer to home, and came up with the idea of using parts from Toyota Corolla cars sourced from local bazaars.

Based on copies of modern ventilators produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, the team drew up its own product design and sent copies to MIT and Harvard University for approval.

“We had to be prepared for the worst situation because we do not have access to Amazon and other companies for online orders. So, it was best to use local devices we have in our country,” tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who set up the team, told Arab News.

“We discussed our design with a professor from MIT, and sent it, based on the MIT prototype, using Toyota Corolla parts. He (the professor) was so surprised and wrote back to us saying that it was a clever design but would need to see if the system worked.

“What we are hoping, is that with the help of MIT we will be able to improve our model and make it ready for actual use by the end of May or June,” added Mahboob.

The prototype ventilator would have to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Afghan Public Health Ministry before the team could start producing more machines, said Dr. Mehdi Hadid, a member of the consultative board fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Herat.

“The machine (ventilator) will be able to supply a certain volume of oxygen and adjust the rate of respiration,” he told Arab News.

With acute shortages of electricity in many parts of the country, the ventilator can operate not only on mains supply, but also by battery and solar power, he said.

Afghanistan has 300 digital ventilators and hopes to buy more for its fight against the virus which has so far infected 484 people and claimed 15 lives.

The Afghan Dreamers’ locally made ventilator will cost around $400 and would mostly be used for emergency cases in remote areas where there were few clinics, said Farzana Nekpour, the team’s head of public relations.

“The current challenge for us is the risk of contracting the coronavirus by being in the workshop under one roof working on the design. We work very close together and there is no social distancing, so there is the chance of contamination despite us wearing masks and gloves,” she told Arab News.

Mahboob said that one of the main future challenges would be finding enough Toyota parts to produce more devices, as many shops and outlets were closing due to lockdowns imposed throughout Afghanistan. “But we have to find a means to help people and make this a successful project for our poor nation. It is vital.”

Entrepreneur Mahboob became one of Afghanistan’s first female chief executives at the age of 23. She set up a nonprofit organization to help young women to build digital literacy and has since been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In 2017, the members of her all-female robotics team made international headlines when their US visas were rejected not long before they were due to travel to an international robotics competition in Washington, DC. After individual appeals to the US Embassy in Kabul failed, the group took to social media to air their grievances. The team’s plight received international attention and led to US President Donald Trump intervening on their behalf.

The team returned from the competition with a silver medal for “courageous achievement” won by their ball-sorting robot, designed to distinguish between contaminated and clean water.

Since returning home, the team has become an inspiration for women seeking higher education in male-dominated Afghanistan, where about 40 percent of women are literate.

Its other achievements include the development of a device to help farmers pick saffron, one of the country’s main industries, and the building of drones and robots for use in the mining sector.