Iraj Harirchi was taken into quarantine just a day after insisting that Iran’s death toll was lower than feared in a sweaty appearance at a press conference.
Harirchi’s diagnosis is the latest sign of Iran’s blundering efforts to contain the virus as the official death toll rose to 15 today.
The regime has refused to seal off the holy city of Qom at the centre of the crisis even as pilgrims spread the virus around the Middle East and Iranians face shortages of masks and testing kits.
Even according to official figures, Iran has the worst virus outbreak in the Middle East with at least 95 people now infected – an increase of 34 since yesterday – and three new deaths bringing the toll to 15.
However, there is strong suspicion that the true figures are much higher, with one lawmaker declaring yesterday that 50 people had died in the holy city of Qom.
Qom, where the virus is believed to have arrived in Iran from
But despite the growing crisis, the governor of Qom declared last night that locking down the city was ‘not an appropriate solution’, Iranian media said.
A series of Middle East governments have imposed travel bans after the virus spread across the region and Turkey today ordered a jet to be diverted on its way from Tehran to Ankara.
Three women and a police officer wear masks in Tehran on Sunday to guard against the coronavirus in Iran, which now has the worst outbreak in the Middle East
Women wearing protective masks get off a bus in Tehran yesterday, amid claims that the Iranian regime is covering up the true scale of the crisis
Iranians had been facing shortages of medical supplies even before the new coronavirus broke out in Qom.
The medical shortages kicked in after Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran in 2018.
Since then, panic has broken out over a lack of face masks, with health experts still unsure exactly how the virus spreads.
Health workers also face a lack of testing kits, meaning that coronavirus cases could go unnoticed for days – allowing the outbreak to spread further.
There are also claims that pharmacies are facing shortages of hand-sanitising gels which could help to contain the outbreak in Qom and around the country.
Washington had exempted humanitarian goods including medicines and medical equipment from its punitive measures.
But purchases of such supplies are hindered by banks being wary of conducting any business with Iran, for fear of falling foul of sanctions themselves.
Qom lawmaker Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani told a session of parliament in Tehran yesterday that 50 people had died in the holy city.
‘I think the performance of the administration in controlling the virus has not been successful,’ he said, in the most public rebuke of the Iranian regime to date.
Farahani said the 50 deaths in Qom date back to February 13, whereas Iran first officially reported cases of the virus on February 19.
He also claimed that 250 people had been quarantined in the city, which is around 75 miles south of Tehran.
‘None of the nurses have access to proper protective gears,’ 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.’
Iranians wait to get prescription drugs at a state-run pharmacy in Tehran last week, amid shortages of medical supplies which were ongoing even before the coronavirus outbreak
People walk in front of the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh in Qom, the Shi’ite holy city at the centre of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak
Health ministry spokesman Iraj Harirchi rejected the Qom lawmaker’s claims, insisting the death toll from the virus remains at 12.
‘No one is qualified to discuss this sort of news at all,’ Haririchi said, adding that lawmakers have no access to coronavirus statistics.
However, Farahani’s announcement sparked claims that Iran was covering up the full scale of the crisis.
Iran faced anger from its own citizens over an attempted cover-up just last month, after claiming falsely that a passenger jet with dozens of Iranians on board had crashed by accident.
The plane was actually shot down by Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the height of Tehran’s stand-off with Washington after the death of Qassem Soleimani.
The coronavirus outbreak has sparked renewed criticism of the regime by Iranian social media users in recent days.
‘Widespread public mistrust regarding the official figures is more dangerous than the coronavirus,’ journalist Siavash Fallahpour said.
Iran’s health minister Saeed Namaki has defended Iran’s handling of the outbreak, saying it was being ‘transparent’ despite the contradictory figures.
Namaki told state TV that officials were nearly certain the virus came from China to Qom in central Iran.
He also said that among those who died from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks.
However, he did not say whether the regime had taken any steps to quarantine people who had come into contact with the merchant.
Bahram Sarmast, the governor of Qom, said last night that quarantining the city would not be an ‘appropriate solution’ despite the outbreak.
A closed border crossing between Iran and Iraq is seen on Sunday after Baghdad shut down links between the two countries over coronavirus fears
Women in Tehran wear masks to guard against the coronavirus, which is believed to have entered Iran from China where the outbreak began
Health minister Namaik offered only a token warning, saying that ‘we do not recommend trips to Qom or any other holy Shi’ite cities’.
The regime has also refused to say whether health workers in the city have quarantined themselves.
Iran’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi told a news conference that if the number of dead in Qom were even one quarter of 50, he would resign.
But even if the regime’s figures were accurate, the Iranian death rate would be higher than in any other country with more than a handful of cases, including China.
The World Health Organization said last week that the virus has proved fatal in around two per cent of infected cases.
But according to the Iranian regime’s own figures, 15 out of 95 virus patients have died – a death rate of more than 15 per cent.
Several of Iran’s neighbours have shut their borders after countries including Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE pointed the finger at Iran for their own virus outbreaks.
Kuwait has reported eight cases of coronavirus, including patients who had recently flown from the Iranian city of Mashhad.
The Iranian regime has yet to admit any virus cases in Mashhad, raising further doubts about its claims.
An Iranian student who is feared to be the first coronavirus patient in Iraq wears a mask and holds medical equipment at a hospital in Najaf in Iraq yesterday
A woman wearing a mask visits a pharmacy in Tehran yesterday, with medical supplies already running short since the U.S. re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018
Kuwait has already sealed off its transport links with Iran and was preparing to evacuate its citizens from the country.
Around a third of Kuwait’s 1.4 million citizens are Shiites, who travel regularly to Iran to visit religious shrines, while Kuwait also hosts roughly 50,000 Iranian workers.
Bahrain announced its first case of the virus, saying a school bus driver had been infected after travelling from Iran via Dubai.
The tally has since risen to eight patients, all of whom have made the same journey from Iran via the UAE – with flights from Dubai and Sharjah to Bahrain now suspended.
More than half of Bahrain’s population of under one million are Shiites, who also travel frequently to Iran.
All flights from the UAE to Iran have also been suspended for at least a week with 13 cases now confirmed in the Emirates.
‘All passenger and cargo aircraft traveling to and from Iran will be suspended for a period of one week, and could be up for extension,’ officials said.
Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel, said that ‘all passengers arriving on direct flights from Tehran will receive thermal screening at the airport.’
The latest cases in the UAE were a 70-year-old Iranian man, whose condition is unstable, and his 64-year-old wife.
On Monday, Abu Dhabi authorities called on all UAE citizens ‘to not travel to Iran and Thailand at present and up until further notice’ as part of its efforts to monitor and contain the disease.