Sixteen Dead in Iran as Deputy Health Minister Tests Positive for Coronavirus

Neighboring countries have already declared cases linked to Iran, closed borders as virus fears spread in the Middle East

People wear masks to help guard against the coronavirus in downtown Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2020
Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Iran's deputy health minister has tested positive for coronavirus, the semi-official news agency ILNA reported.

The spokesman for Iran's health ministry confirmed in an interview with state television that Deputy Minister Iraj Harirchi has been infected and is now under quarantine.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.

Iraqi medical staff check a passenger's temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon her arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

"Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection," said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.

The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home. Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from the holy Shi'ite city of Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak.

"It is an uninvited and inauspicious visitor. God willing we will get through ... this virus," said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a televised speech.

Iran has yet to say how many people it has quarantined but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalised in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom, where Tehran confirmed its first two deaths last week.

The outbreak in Iran comes as its clerical rulers face mounting U.S. pressure that has hit the economy hard. Washington exited Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with major powers in 2018 and has reimposed sanctions on the country.

The outbreak threatens to isolate Iran even further, with several countries suspending flights after coronavirus cases in travellers from Iran were confirmed in Canada, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Shiite pilgrims wear masks in the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, February 24, 2020,
Anmar Khalil,AP

Some neighboring countries have closed their borders. An airport representative said on Tuesday that Dubai International Airport has suspended all flights to and from the Islamic Republic, with the exception of Tehran.

Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said on Tuesday the total number of infected people there had risen to eight. Bahrain said it also had eight cases, four of whom were Saudi nationals and two Bahrainis.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts, soccer matches, closures of schools and universities in many provinces as a precaution.