Iran’s deputy health minister has tested positive for coronavirus amid a rapidly worsening outbreak in the Islamic republic today.
Iraj Harirchi was taken into quarantine just a day after sweating heavily at a press conference where he insisted that the outbreak was not as bad as feared.
The virus’s spread into the health ministry is the latest sign of Tehran’s faltering efforts to contain the outbreak as the official death toll rose to 15.
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.
Iran has officially declared 95 cases, but there are fears the true total could be much higher. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iran’s leaders to ‘tell the truth’ about the virus and cooperate with heath authorities.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has been diagnosed with coronavirus just a day after he appeared at a press conference sweating profusely while insisting the country had its outbreak under control
Harirchi appeared unsteady on his feet, sipped from a glass of water, and mopped his brow repeatedly while standing just feet away from Ali Rabiei (right), the minister in charge of preventing the spread of coronavirus
Harirchi and Rabiei insisted at the press conference that Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, which has seen the country officially declare 95 cases, is not as bad as feared
Harirchi was taken to quarantine shortly after the press conference , before tests revealed that he had the virus Tuesday
“All nations including Iran should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations,” he said.
Recalling the initial crackdown in China which meant key early windows to stop the spread of the virus were missed, Pompeo added: ‘If China permitted its own journals and medical personnel to speak and investigate freely, Chinese officials and other nations would have been far better prepared to address the challenge.’
Fears were sparked over Iran after one lawmaker claimed that 50 people had died from coronavirus in the city of Qom alone, which would mark the highest number of deaths outside China.
Qom, where the virus is believed to have arrived in Iran from China, is a major destination for Shi’ite pilgrims from around the Middle East.
Around 20million pilgrims visit the city every year, and Iran would find it difficult to shut its porous borders with neighbours including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A series of Middle East governments have imposed travel bans after the virus spread across the region while Turkey today ordered a jet to be diverted on its way from Tehran to Istanbul.
But despite the growing crisis, Iran has rejected calls to lock down Qom – saying today that people were ‘cultured enough’ to avoid spreading the virus elsewhere.
Iranians had been facing shortages of medical supplies even before the new coronavirus broke out in Qom.
A map showing how the coronavirus outbreak has spread from Iran across the Middle East to countries including Kuwait and Iraq. All the cases shown above have been traced back to Iran
Coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people around the world with more than 2,700 deaths. While the majority of cases have occurred inside China, Iran and northern Italy have suffered outbreaks that have spread the virus further
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
Iranian municipality workers spray disinfectant as a precaution against COVID-19 at a wagon of Tehran’s public subway
A taxi driver wears protective mask and gloves to prevent contracting coronavirus, as he drives in the street in Tehran
An Iranian woman wears a protective mask to prevent contracting coronavirus, as she is seen at a drug store in Tehran
Pharmacists talk with customers at drugstore in downtown Tehran, amid fears the country is running low on medical supplies
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.
Iraqis wearing masks walk on February 25, 2020 in the partially deserted streets of Iraq’s central shrine city of Najaf
An Iranian man wears a protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as he sits in the bus in Tehran
Pakistani soldiers wearing facemasks patrol near the closed Pakistan-Iran border in Taftan
Medics wearing protective gear ride in an ambulance carrying passengers and crew of a Turkish Airlines plane from Tehran
Pakistani medical staff stand at the Pakistan-Iran border, which was closed due to the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran
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.’
Health minister 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.
A Turkish Airlines jet makes an emergency landing in Ankara today after more than a dozen passengers on the flight from Iran were suspected of having the coronavirus
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 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
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.
Harirchi’s denials lost further credibility today when he himself came down with the virus.
The minister said he had quarantined himself at his home and promised that authorities would bring the virus under control.
Harirchi had looked visibly uncomfortable and wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief during yesterday’s press conference.
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.
Namaki today defended the decision not to lock down the city of Qom, saying that quarantine is an ‘old method’.
‘We still do not agree with quarantining cities since we believe the people are cultured enough to refrain from travelling from infected cities to other places,’ semi-official news agency ISNA quoted him as saying.
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.
Deputy health minister Harirchi told the news conference yesterday 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.
The health ministry said 16 of today’s new cases were confirmed in Qom, while nine were in Tehran, and two each in Alborz, Gilan and Mazandaran.
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.
Today a Turkish Airlines jet from Tehran to Istanbul made an unplanned landing in Ankara after 17 passengers on board were suspected of having coronavirus.
Turkey’s health minister Fahrettin Koca said the Turks on board were being repatriated due to the outbreak in Iran.
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 bus driver had transported students as recently as Sunday.
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.
Shortly after, the Bahraini authorities said citizens were banned from travelling to Iran ‘until further notice’.
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.