Japan's health ministry confirmed Thursday that two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship have died from the new virus, becoming the first fatalities from the virus-stricken vessel.

Japan now has three deaths linked to the COVID-19 illness.

Japan's NHK public television said both were Japanese in their 80s. A health ministry official only confirmed that they had been previously been hospitalized in serious condition. The official spoke anonymously, citing office protocol.

The new virus began in China late last year has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in China.

About 500 passengers left the Diamond Princess cruise ship Wednesday at the end of a much-criticized two-week quarantine that failed to stop the spread of the new virus among passengers and crew.

The quarantine's flop was underlined as Japanese authorities announced 79 more cases, bringing the total on the ship to 621. Results were still pending for some other passengers and crew among the original 3,711 people on board.

Japan's government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator. The Diamond Princess has the most infections outside of China, where the illness known as COVID-19 emerged late last year.

Many foreign governments won't let passengers from the ship return unless they go through another quarantine period, so it was striking to see passengers disembark, get into taxis and disappear into Yokohama, where the ship is docked.

Passengers were provided with a certificate stating their negative test results and completion of the quarantine.

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