LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When passengers of a luxury ship were quarantined in their rooms after one person tested positive with the coronavirus, it may have seemed like a good idea. Yet as the days went on, dozens and then hundreds became infected with COVID-19. The largest outbreak site outside of China was on board that ill-fated ship docked in Japan. Now two passengers are dead. The closed environment of the Diamond Princess, says our next guest, was essentially a petri dish. Dan Vergano is a science writer for BuzzFeed News, and he joins me now. Welcome.
DAN VERGANO: Hi. Good to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cruise ships, as you wrote, are notorious for spreading illnesses. I have to start by asking, are epidemiologists really surprised that after two weeks, more than 600 people have been infected on one ship alone?
VERGANO: The people we spoke to who've studied this sort of thing in the past aren't surprised at all. And it sort of keyed on the question of, how does this virus behave? And now it's becoming apparent - or it seems apparent - we have to be very careful...
VERGANO: ...That it's more like the flu, like influenza A, where airborne transmission earlier in an infection - during the sneezing rather than coughing stage - seems to be a factor here. And that brings into play the question of how this ship was ventilated and, you know, airborne transmission in general.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about the ventilation system.
VERGANO: So the people who've studied this - and one of the surprises here was that there actually has been a lot of research looking into this question - say that ventilation systems on cruise ships aren't any good at stopping airborne diseases from spreading, that there've been studies of flu where you have, in a week's time, you know, one patient infecting 40 people. And likewise, the air filters simply aren't designed to screen viruses. After a while, the whole system gets gunked up with it. And just speaking, sneezing, coughing in your ward room - that gets picked up by the air system, you know, and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it doesn't get filtered out and maybe gets passed on.
VERGANO: In the past, that's what's happened. And unless this cruise ship had some kind of impossible-to-have ventilation system, that was going on.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it just seemed that people knew about what happens onboard ships. And so it might not have been the best thing to keep them all...
VERGANO: What's your criteria? I mean, it's clear the Japanese government's goal was to keep this thing bottled up on a ship, right? There - you have all these people there - 2,666 passengers and another thousand crew. They're on the ship. They're not in Japan, right? And so if you just pull them off one by one as they get sick and put them in the hospital, that's better than dumping 3,000-some people who are all potentially sick into Japan at once and potentially contaminating an entire island, which likely was their thinking, people I've spoken to have speculated. So like this was a way to keep the thing contained on the ship more than a way to to treat the patients, although, of course, they treated them. You know, they were getting checked and that sort of thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So with the benefit of hindsight, what should have officials in Japan done when a ship with more than 3,700 crew and passengers anchored there with the coronavirus as a concern?
VERGANO: The consensus seems to be they should have bitten the bullet, found places to put these people up like they've done in Singapore, where they have them in university dorms, separate from each other. The airflow should've been cut off from a central air. And they should have used fresh air pumped into individual rooms, turn on space heaters to keep them warm and, you know, don't intermix on a giant container a bunch of sick people and well people and expect it to turn out well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: With air travel - and there is still largely free movement of people - do you see the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 as inevitable?
VERGANO: Most of the experts I talked to see it as inevitable. They think that this is going to end up being one of the endemic coronaviruses that humanity has to deal with. The question is, how soon does that happen? And it seems like it's coming closer right now with what's going on in South Korea and Iran and elsewhere, where we have cases that look - are looking more and more like community-based ones rather than travel related. That's the big worry. And the nice thing about the Diamond Princess people is we know who they are. And we can watch them. The cases where we can't do that, I mean - those are the ones that are a real worry right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News, based here in Washington, D.C. And he joined us in the studio. Thank you so much.
VERGANO: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.