People stranded aboard a cruise ship in the Chinese city for five days disembark after its 1,800 crew tested negative for the deadly new coronavirus, officials say.

The cruise ship World Dream docked at Kai Tak cruise terminal as passengers leave the ship after being quarantined for the coronavirus in Hong Kong, Sunday, February 9, 2020.
The cruise ship World Dream docked at Kai Tak cruise terminal as passengers leave the ship after being quarantined for the coronavirus in Hong Kong, Sunday, February 9, 2020. (AP)

Thousands of people stranded aboard a cruise ship in Hong Kong for five days were allowed to disembark on Sunday after its 1,800 crew tested negative for the deadly new coronavirus.

Health authorities in the semi-autonomous Asian financial hub said the crew and a similar number of passengers had been released from a quarantine imposed because of fears some staff could have contracted the deadly virus on a previous voyage and passed it on.

The World Dream carried three Chinese passengers to Vietnam between January 19 and 24 who were later found to be infected with the SARS-like coronavirus, which has killed more than 800 people in China since it emerged in December.

The government grounded the ship on its arrival in Hong Kong on Wednesday while tests were carried out on the crew, but said the passengers need not undergo an examination as they had no contact with the three sick holidaymakers on the January trip.

Tests 'are all negative'

First found in the city of Wuhan in central China last December, the virus has infected more than 37,200 people on the Chinese mainland and at least 36 in Hong Kong.

The passengers and crew isolated on the vessel had been expecting to stay aboard until Tuesday after Hong Kong authorities said testing would take at least four days.

But chief port health officer Leung Yiu-hong said Sunday "all tests have results this afternoon and are all negative".

He added that passenger testing was deemed unnecessary because they were at relatively low risk. All 3,600 onboard will not be required to self-quarantine after leaving.

As he left the ship, passenger Rocky Chan said quarantine conditions had been "okay", though his time onboard had caused him a few problems.

"My job was somewhat affected due to the time I had to spend here," he said but added that a letter he received from the Department of Health should smooth out any issues.

Vice-president of marketing at Dream Cruises, Phoebe Yip Ching-man, said the company arranged for dozens of coaches to take passengers into the city, while free hotel rooms were booked for the more than 100 foreign passport holders on board who needed them.

Hong Kong on Saturday began enforcing a 14-day quarantine period on all people arriving from mainland China in a fresh bid to curb the spread of the virus.

The city's health minister on Sunday morning said 468 people had so far been ordered to stay at home, in hotel rooms or at a government quarantine camp since the policy took effect.

Death toll soars

Mainland China's death toll from the new virus outbreak soared to 811, surpassing the number of fatalities in the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic, as authorities enforce ever-stricter measures to curb the further spread. 

In a possibly hopeful sign, however, the number of new cases reported over the last 24 hours on Sunday fell significantly from the previous period. 

Another 89 deaths were reported, while 2,656 new cases were added for a total of 37,198. On Saturday, 3,399 cases were counted for the previous 24 hours. 

More than 300 cases in some two dozen countries and two fatalities have been confirmed outside the mainland.

SARS had killed 774 people and sickened 8,098, mainly in mainland China and Hong Kong. 

The response this time has been much quicker and countries around the world are enforcing tougher measures to contain the disease. 

China has placed around 50 million people under quarantine, mainly in and around Wuhan, the hardest-hit central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in December among people who had visited a food market where live wild animals were sold. 

A 60-year-old US citizen was among the new fatalities in Wuhan, apparently the first American death in the outbreak. 

A Japanese citizen being treated in Wuhan who was a suspected case also died. 

More cases in Japan

On Saturday, Japan reported three more cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship for a total of 64. 

There are 3,700 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess who must remain on board for 14 days.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said foreign passengers on another ship, Holland America's Westerdam, won't be allowed into Japan because of suspected virus patients on board. 

The ship, with more than 2,000 people, was near Okinawa and was seeking another port. 

China's leaders are trying to keep food flowing to crowded cities despite anti-disease controls and to quell fears of possible shortages and price spikes following panic buying after most access to Wuhan and nearby cities was cut off. 

Cities across the country have enforced travel bans and Beijing supermarkets have begun requiring customers to register their personal information and have their temperatures taken before being allowed to enter. 

Doctor's death regretted 

Authorities have expressed their regrets over the death of 34-year-old Dr Li Wenliang, who was threatened by police after trying to sound the alarm about the disease over a month ago and became infected himself. 

A team from Beijing is reportedly being sent to Wuhan to investigate “issues reported by the masses" related to the case. 

That was an apparent attempt to stem public outrage after Li's death crystallised doubts about the ruling Communist Party's controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, chemical spills, dangerous consumer products or financial frauds, while intimidating and detaining whistleblowers. 

The ophthalmologist died last week at Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked and likely contracted the virus while treating patients in the early days of the outbreak. 

Police in December had reprimanded eight doctors including Li for warning friends on social media about the emerging threat. China's supreme court later criticised the police, but the ruling Communist Party has tightened its grip on information about the outbreak. 

Users of China's Weibo microblogging service have left hundreds of thousands of messages mourning Li's death and criticising how he and the other seven were dealt with. 

Civil rights lawyers, environmental activists, advocates for ethnic and sexual minorities and political dissidents routinely receive similar treatment.

Source: AP