The Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined off the coast of Japan as hundred of passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. The Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined off the coast of Japan as hundred of passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. The Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined off the coast of Japan as hundreds of passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli doctor rushes to Japan to help with coronavirus outbreak

Dr. Ran Nir-Paz is on the front line tending to cruise ship passengers, and is hopeful the spread of the disease is slowing down.

Dr. Ran Nir-Paz has traveled to Japan many times, but the trip he's on this week is like no other. The Israeli doctor, a microbiology and infectious disease expert from Hadassah Hospital, landed in Asia on Tuesday to check in on the three Israeli patients who tested positive for the coronavirus.

For the 54-year-old doctor, it was hard to say no to such an opportunity. "There's a saying: if a fisherman loves the fish, then why does he kill them? I would say the same applies here," Nir-Paz told From The Grapevine from his hotel room in Tokyo. "For an infectious disease physician, I obviously love infectious diseases and I love both the pathogens and the people. So when you get to know a new infectious disease, it's kind of a challenge just to get to know it, to understand what's going on." He paused before adding, "It's really a fascinating thing to study a new disease."

A cruise ship in crisis

The Diamond Princess cruise ship – with approximately 3,700 passengers on board from more than 50 countries – has been moored off the coast of Japan for the past two weeks after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was found to have the virus. At least 542 passengers and crew have been infected by covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus – the largest cluster outside of mainland China. Fifteen of the ship's passengers are Israeli; 12 tested negative for the disease, while 3 were infected.

Dr. Nir-Paz flew to Japan this week to check in on those three patients. "I've met with the physicians to discuss the cases. I went through all the medical files and we also spoke through the intercom with the patients to make sure that everything is fine. And I've done some medical history for the patients in Hebrew just to make sure that there's no other issues that are being missed because of the language barrier."

As for their prognosis, the doctor says it looks good. "They're not severe cases. They were very minor cases. And hopefully they will recover soon," he told us, adding that they hopefully will be able to return home in a few days.

The dozen who tested negative for the virus are expected to return home to Israel on Thursday, where they will remain in quarantine for 14 days to ensure they are not carriers of the disease.

Dr. Galia Rahavm is pictured in one of the rooms where Israelis returning from China will stay under observation and isolation to control the spread of the coronavirus at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. Dr. Galia Rahavm is pictured in one of the rooms where Israelis returning from China will stay under observation and isolation to control the spread of the coronavirus at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. (Photo: Heidi Levine / AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Nir-Paz is just one part of the equation when it comes to how his native Israel is helping combat this new disease. Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organization IsraAid sent urgently needed medical supplies to China to help combat the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, several Israeli health startups are developing technologies that they believe can assist in combating the disease.

While the death toll from the coronavirus has exceeded 2,000, there are signs of hope that the worst might be over. While any potential outcome is still possible, researchers at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University believe the number of new cases could be slowing down. Using epidemic models, they say the disease is infecting fewer people than expected outside of China.

Dr. Ran Nir-Paz (left) and Revital Ben-Naim, the Consul to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, on their way to visit Israeli patients at the hospital.Dr. Ran Nir-Paz (left) and Revital Ben-Naim, the Consul to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, on their way to visit Israeli patients at the hospital. (Photo: Courtesy Hadassah Medical Organization)

Dr. Nir-Paz agrees with this consensus. "I know it's not popular to say it, but I would assume that if the epicenter of this disease would have started in another part of the world, our chances to know all the details in such a short time would be very, very slim," he said. "Because the Chinese were very effective in containing and understanding that there's a big issue – sending the right teams, sequencing the pathogen and then starting all of these precautions. The moment that they start with these extreme precautions, people understood that there's some major issue over here. And I think that's what might prevent the widespread of this disease around the globe. It might be that those containment measures might make this disease more reasonable going from one place to another."

The Olympics, and beyond

With the start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo only five months away, there is some concern over how the virus may impact the Games. Several qualifying events have been postponed or relocated. Olympic boxing qualifiers were scheduled to take place this month in Wuhan – the epicenter of the outbreak – but have instead been moved to Jordan. A women's basketball qualifying event has been moved from China to Belgrade. The virus has already impacted the Tokyo Marathon. That race, scheduled for March 1, was expected to have 38,000 runners participate from around the world. Instead, organizers announced on Monday that only about 200 elite runners will be allowed to race.

People wear face masks as they wait at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the outbreak.People wear face masks as they wait at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the outbreak. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dr. Nir-Paz, who has been researching infectious diseases for more than two decades, is nevertheless taking a cautiously optimistic approach. "If the medical system is not exhausted, we shouldn't be worried. It's a very mild disease in most cases, and the chances of getting extremely sick are not big." He noted that countries like the U.S., U.K., France and Germany are doing a good job of containing the disease. "If the inflow of people from an infected country was reduced in a major way, then the chances of bringing this virus into a community that was not exposed to it before is low and the medical system is able to control it."

Even in Japan, he said he's pleasantly surprised at how calm everyone seems. "I thought that everybody would be scared with masks all around, but apparently it doesn't look like it. Even in the airport, some of the people didn't wear masks. So it looks like normal in Japan."

That sense of normalcy allowed Nir-Paz a moment to be a tourist. On his way to the Israeli embassy this morning, he stopped into a bakery and bought a couple of pastries. "That's a joyful thing that I did today."

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Israeli doctor rushes to Japan to help with coronavirus outbreak
Dr. Ran Nir-Paz is on the front line tending to cruise ship passengers, and is hopeful the spread of the disease is slowing down.