A staggering 50 people have died in the Iranian city of Qom from the new coronavirus this month, a lawmaker was quoted as saying on Monday, even as the Health Ministry insisted only 12 deaths have been recorded nationwide.
The new death toll reported by the Qom representative, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, is significantly higher than the 47 total cases of infections state TV had reported just hours earlier. Iran's health ministry now says total infections have risen to 61, but a spokesman said deaths remained at 12.
Still, questions of transparency are being raised as the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.
There are concerns that clusters of the new coronavirus in Iran, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread.
Farahani, the lawmaker, said the 50 deaths in Qom date as far back as Feb. 13. Iran first officially reported cases of the virus and its first deaths on Feb. 19.
Farahani did not provide evidence to support his claims but said more than 250 people are quarantined in Qom, which is known for its Shiite seminaries that attract students from across Iran and other countries. Schools there have been shuttered.
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“I think the performance of the administration in controlling the virus has not been successful,” Farahani said, referring to the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
His comments represent the most public criticism levied yet against the government for its handling of the virus, which originated in China in December.
“None of the nurses have access to proper protective gear,” Farahani said, adding that some health care specialists had left the city. “So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront corona by the administration.
He spoke following a session in parliament in Tehran. His comments were published first by the semi-official ILNA and later by other news agencies in Iran.
While the lawmaker's harsh criticism is rare in Iran, it reflects deep-seated public mistrust of the government, particularly in the days since the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January that killed all 176 on board amid heightened tensions with the U.S. Officials in Iran tried to conceal the cause of the crash before admitting Revolutionary Guard forces had shot the plane down, mistaking it as enemy target.
Health Ministry spokesman Iraj Harirchi insisted Monday the death toll from the virus remains at 12. He did, however, raise the number of confirmed cases of infections to 61, and added that some 900 other suspected cases are being tested.
"No one is qualified to discuss this sort of news at all," Harirchi said, adding that lawmakers have no access to coronavirus statics and could be mixing figures on deaths related to other diseases like the flu with the new virus.
The virus, which causes the illness recently named COVID-19, has infected more than 79,000 people globally, and caused more than 2,600 deaths, most of them in China.
Ian Mackay, who studies viruses at Australia’s University of Queensland said the latest figures reported by the lawmaker mean that “Iran could become the hotspot for seeding countries that have travel with Iran ... a source outside of China.”
The outbreak of the virus in Iran comes as its economy buckles under pressure from U.S. economic sanctions. The virus threatens to isolate Iran even further as neighboring countries closed their borders with Iran.
Authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shut their borders with Iran, announced their first confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday. Kuwait and Bahrain also announced their first cases. In all four countries, the infected patients had links with Iran.
Travelers from Iran infected with the virus have also been confirmed in Canada, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
The head of the World Health Organization expressed concerns Monday over the virus' spread in Iran and Italy.
“It is an incredible time. Less than two months ago, the coronavirus was completely unknown to us," WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Monday. “The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption.”
The outbreak in Iran has centered mostly in the city of Qom, but spread rapidly over the past few days as Iranians went to the polls on Friday for parliamentary elections, with many voters wearing masks and stocking up on hand sanitizer.
Iranian health officials have not said whether health workers in Qom who first came in contact with infected people had taken precautionary measures in treating those who died of the virus. Iran also has not said how many people are in quarantine across the country overall.
To prevent the spread of the virus, schools across much of the country were closed for a second day. Public soccer matches and movie screenings have been suspended. Tehran's metro, which is used by some 3 million people, and public buses in the capital are being sanitized daily.
Kuwait announced on Monday its first cases of the virus, saying that three travellers returning from the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran, were confirmed infected with the coronavirus.
Iran, however, has not yet reported any confirmed cases of the virus in Mashhad, raising further questions about how the Iranian government is carrying out tests and quarantines.
Iran has confirmed cases so far in five cities, including the capital, Tehran. A local mayor in Tehran is among those infected and in quarantine.
Iraq said the virus was confirmed in an Iranian student in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Separately, a person in Afghanistan's western province of Herat who had returned from Iran tested positive for the virus, the health ministry there confirmed.
Bahrain's Health Ministry said an infected citizen who returned from Iran on Friday had transited through the world's busiest international airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The ministry said the person is a school bus driver, and that students are being checked and related schools will be closed for two weeks.
Armenia too has closed its border with Iran for two weeks and suspended air traffic between the two countries because of the new coronavirus. Azerbaijan temporarily closed two border checkpoints with Iran. Georgia too has restricted movement of individuals to and from Iran and halted direct flights.