Canadian passengers Chris and Anna Joiner ask for help on board the MS Zaandam, Holland America Line cruise ship, during the coronavirus outbreak, off the shores of Panama City, Panama, 27 March 2020Image copyright

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Canadian passengers on the Zaandam, Chris and Anna Joiner, ask their government for help

A cruise ship carrying more than 1,800 people off Panama is in a race to transfer healthy passengers to another ship after four people died – and two others tested positive for coronavirus.

The owners of the Zaandam, Holland America, said that more than 130 people on board had reported suffering “flu-like symptoms” and respiratory issues.

Nobody has left the ship since it docked in Chile two weeks ago.

Holland America said it planned to transfer passengers to a sister ship.

The Zaandam and the Rotterdam are both off the western, Pacific coast of Panama. The Zaandam plans to sail through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean Sea and continue to Florida.

The Panamanian authorities have said no vessel with confirmed coronavirus cases on board can pass through the Panama Canal.

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The Zaandam has been stranded off the Pacific coast of South America for several days

Today we announced a plan to transfer groups of healthy Zaandam guests to Rotterdam,” the Dutch-owned operator said in a statement on Facebook, adding that it would follow “strict protocols”.

It said that “four older guests” had died, but did not give further details about the causes of death.

“We received approval from Panamanian authorities to conduct ship-to-ship operations at anchor between the two vessels,” the statement reads.

The ships have already transferred medical supplies and staff.

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Hundreds of passengers without coronavirus symptoms are to be transferred to another ship

“We continue to work with the Panamanian authorities on approval to transit the Panama Canal for sailing to Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” Holland America said.

It added that 53 guests and 85 crew members had reported influenza-like illness symptoms.

There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew on board the Zaandam, including four doctors and four nurses. On the Rotterdam there are two doctors and four nurses, the company said.

The Panama Maritime Authority later said that passengers who were not displaying coronavirus symptoms could be transferred to the Rotterdam.

“It has been concluded that it does not represent any risk to our population since it will be carried out more than eight miles from the mainland,” the authority said, adding that the bodies of the deceased would remain on the Zaandam.

The Zaandam was on a South America cruise that departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 7 March.

On Friday, Panama reported that 14 people had so far died in the country after contracting Covid-19, with 786 confirmed cases of infection.

There are now more than 10,000 coronavirus cases in South America, AFP news agency reported.