Two Chinese passengers held in isolation on a crowded cruise ship appear not to have the deadly coronavirus, Italy's health ministry says.
More than 7000 people were under lockdown aboard the Costa Smeralda at a port near Rome after one of the passengers, a 54-year-old woman from Macau, came down with a fever and breathing problems.
The woman and her husband were placed in solitary confinement and samples were sent off to a nearby lab for testing. Meanwhile, all other passengers were told they could not leave the ship, reports news.com.au.
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The ship is currently docked in the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome, near where the Costa Concordia disaster occurred in 2012. It is carrying 6000 tourists and another 1000 members of crew.
Preliminary tests on the pair suggested they were not carrying the virus, the ministry of health said, but it was not immediately clear whether passengers would be allowed to leave the vessel before final results were confirmed.
The Lazzaro Spallanzani national institute for infectious diseases, which is examining the samples, told the AFP news agency the definitive results could take up to 48 hours.
'Couple's cabin isolated'
Earlier, Costa Cruises confirmed the ship was in lockdown. It said a 54-year old woman from Macau "was placed in solitary confinement in the on-board hospital last night with her travel companion", and was following instructions from the health ministry.
The Costa Smeralda, the company's flagship and the fifth-largest cruise ship in the world, "came from Palma de Mallorca and is currently engaged in one-week cruises in the western Mediterranean," it said.
The couple flew in to Milan from Hong Kong on January 25, before getting on the cruise, according to Italian media reports.
Some 750 other Chinese passengers on-board the ship all appeared to be in good health, media reports said.
"The couple's cabin has been isolated and they are in with the doctors," an unnamed passenger was quoted as telling ANSA news agency.
"We're a bit worried of course. No-one is getting on or off the ship apart from the doctors. This holiday risks ending in a nightmare".
Passengers wait for information
Social media posts from people purporting to be on the Costa Smeralda said scheduled excursions to Rome had been cancelled and passengers had been left in the dark for hours.
"Waiting since 8:30 this morning to find out who, why, how," one person wrote on Twitter.
"Hopefully it is not this virus because on a boat the spread can be fast. But if we had information, it would be better," she added.
"The most annoying for us is the cancellation of the excursion from Rome and the lack of communication."
"People are really very calm but there are some nervous or anxious people, not because of the coronavirus, but because they don't know when they can leave," another person tweeted.
Photos showed bored passengers waiting in the ship's bars, cafes and lounges.
The luxury, 185000-tonne cruise liner, which is Costa's first 'green ship' powered by liquefied natural gas, contains 11 restaurants, eight bars, four swimming pools, a theatre and casino.
It is next due to visit La Spezia, on Italy's northwest coast, and Savona, a seaport west of Genoa.
An initial plan to disembark some 1,140 passengers who had been due to leave the ship on Thursday morning was put on hold after Civitavecchia mayor Ernesto Tedesco protested.
"Are you mad? Who gave you the order to disembark? I'll take you all to court," he shouted at officials after racing to the port in his Fiat 500, according to the Repubblica daily.
Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, said the government was ready to take further steps if necessary.
"We're not concerned, but we are absolutely vigilant and cautious in facing this prospect," he told reporters during a trip to Bulgaria.
China reported its biggest single-day jump in novel coronavirus deaths on Thursday, as global fears deepened with at least 15 countries confirming infections.
The World Health Organisation, which initially downplayed a disease that has now killed 170 in China, was preparing to meet Thursday to decide whether to declare it a global emergency.