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A passenger aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship waves to the media upon arriving at Yokohama port on February 6, 2020. Ten more people on a cruise ship off Japan have tested positive for the new coronavirus, local media said, raising the number of infections detected on the boat to 20. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: Two passengers from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship moored near Tokyo have died, public broadcaster NHK said on Thursday, as a second group of passengers began disembarking after two-weeks quarantined onboard.

More than 620 of the passengers on the Diamond Princess liner have been infected on the ship, which has been quarantined since Feb. 3, initially with about 3,700 people on board.

NHK, citing a government source, said the passengers were a man and woman in their 80s.

The rapid spread of the disease - Japan has well over half of the known cases outside China - has sparked criticism of authorities just months before Tokyo is due to host the Summer Olympics.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato on Thursday defended Japan’s response in parliament, telling lawmakers that officials have taken expert advice and responded to issues on a daily basis.

In a move to reassure the public, the health ministry also issued a statement in both English and Japanese that said all passengers had been required to stay in their cabins since Feb. 5 to contain the virus.

Public criticism of the government has played out in social media.

Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese infectious disease specialist with Kobe University, removed a widely-viewed video clip that castigated the government response.

“There is no need for further discussing this,” he said in a tweet, apologizing to “those who got involved”.

He later told a news conference he took down the video because he was informed conditions on the ship had improved.

About 500 passengers were set to disembark on Thursday while another 100 people were to leave for chartered flights home, a health ministry official said.