Twelve new coronavirus cases emerged Friday in Egypt among workers on a Nile River cruise ship, popular with foreign tourists, the World Health Organisation and Egypt's Health Ministry announced.
The passengers on the ship have long since ended their cruise, and it is unclear whether the outbreak among the workers is linked to infections reported in the United States and elsewhere involving recent travelers to Egypt.
Six people in the Houston area reportedly developed covid-19, caused by the virus, after they returned to the United States on Feb. 20 following a Nile cruise in Egypt. French authorities have said several people had tested positive after visiting Egypt, and at least three cases have been confirmed in Canada among recent travelers to Egypt, according to Canadian authorities.
The Egyptian cruise ship workers were tested for the virus at the end of its 14-day incubation period, said Egyptian health authorities, which suggests the infections occurred during a cruise between the cities of Aswan and Luxor sometime in the third week of February.
Authorities have not disclosed the number and nationality of passengers on that cruise.
Egyptian authorities were prompted to investigate a possible outbreak involving the Nile cruise after a Taiwanese American woman who had been on board tested positive for the virus Feb. 28 after she returned to Taiwan, the joint statement said. Health officials said they believe she had spread the virus to others aboard the vessel.
After Egyptian authorities were alerted to the woman's infection, 12 workers on her ship were quarantined, and they tested positive on the last day of their isolation, officials said. Other people who had come into contact with the vessel and the workers have also been quarantined, the officials added.
A WHO epidemiologist said Friday that while the tests showed the virus was present in the workers' bodies, none of them evinced any symptoms, suggesting they had not readily passed the virus to many others.
"We know that is possible, but we do not believe that is a major driver of transmission," Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters in Geneva. "If we look at the actual epidemics and how these epidemics are unfolding, if they were a major driver of transmission it would have caused much larger numbers of cases."
The 12 workers have been transferred to an isolation facility in a hospital for treatment. The cruise ship was named River A and was towed to an area 12 miles away from Luxor, according to the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, which cited security sources.
The vessels that cruise the Nile range in capacity, with some carrying as many as 150 passengers. The trip between Aswan and Luxor takes two to four nights, with the vessels stopping along the way for sightseeing.
The announcement of the new cases increased the number of confirmed infections in Egypt fourfold. Before Friday, the Arab world's most populous nation, with more than 100 million people, had declared only three cases since the virus surfaced last year in China. The first, a Chinese national, later recovered. The other two, a Canadian oil worker and an Egyptian who had returned from Serbia, are currently receiving treatment.
There have been growing concerns among Egyptians, on the streets, in dinner conversation and on social media, about a lack of official transparency. There are suspicious that the spread of the coronavirus could be larger than what the government has revealed so far. Egypt has not closed schools, halted Friday prayers or stopped other large gatherings of people to limit the spread of the virus.
The coronavirus outbreak is hitting the Middle East just as Egypt's tourism - the country's biggest earner of foreign currency - is showing signs of rebounding from political upheaval and terrorist attacks in recent years.
Cruising on the Nile has become a bucket-list item for travelers. Many itineraries are sold out for the coming summer season, according to industry reports.