The novel coronavirus has killed at least 210 people in Iran, according to a report Friday, more than six times higher than the death count reported by Iranian authorities.
Citing unnamed sources at Iranian hospitals, BBC Persian reported that the highest number of dead were in the capital Tehran and Qom, a Shiite holy city where the virus first emerged in Iran.
The locations of the hospitals were not specified in the report.
Iran’s health ministry, which earlier Friday reported a death toll of 34, rejected the report.
Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur accused BBC Persian of joining the Islamic republic’s regional enemies in a “race to spread lies” about Iran.
“Iran’s exemplary transparency in publishing information on the coronavirus has stunned many people,” Jahanpur tweeted.
Jahanpour said 143 cases had been detected over the past 24 hours, increasing the total of confirmed infections to 388.
Among the new cases, 64 were in Tehran while the number of provinces hit by the outbreak rose to 24, Jahanpour said.
“We are currently in a phase in which infections are increasing,” he said, predicting that the situation “will continue for some days, even weeks.”
It is the highest number of new cases for a single day since Iran announced its first confirmed infections on February 19 in Qom.
The outbreak of the new virus in Iran has been dramatic — the head of Iran’s task force to stop the illness was seen coughing, sweating and wheezing across televised interviews before acknowledging he was infected. Then, days later, a visibly pale official sat only meters (feet) away from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders before she too reportedly came down with the virus.
Iran’s success — or failure — in combating the virus will have an impact far beyond the country’s 80 million people as the majority of cases in the Middle East now link back to Iran.
“We will have a tough week ahead,” Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki warned. “The main peak of the coronavirus will be next week and in the coming days.”
In Tehran and other cities, authorities canceled Friday prayer services to limit crowds. In the capital Radio Tehran, which typically carries the prayer, played only traditional Iranian music. Universities are to remain closed another week. Schools will be closed for at least three days, Namaki said. Parliament also will be closed, state television said, citing a lawmaker.
Meanwhile, Iranian state media made a point to show the government is addressing the crisis. In the city of Mashhad, at the Imam Reza Shrine, hazmat-suited cleaners fogged disinfectant across surfaces that the faithful kiss and touch as workers installed hand sanitizers. Trucks from Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard sprayed down streets and sidewalks in the holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak.
But questions still remain over Iran’s count. Experts, including at the World Health Organization, worry the Islamic Republic may be underreporting the number of cases in the country.
Iran denied for days that the virus was in the country acknowledging it just as it was trying to pump up enthusiasm for the country’s parliamentary election — a vote that saw the lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
By doing so, Iran likely allowed the virus to spread rapidly, reaching even into the upper echelons of its power structure as it sickened four lawmakers, top clerics and other officials.
On Thursday, word spread that one of Iran’s many vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had contracted the virus. Ebtekar, 59, is better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis.
Ebtekar on Wednesday attended a Cabinet meeting chaired by Rouhani, 71. Other top officials, most in their late 50s and 60s, sat within several meters (feet) from her as well. Jahanpour, the Health Ministry spokesman, said the average age of those killed by the virus and the illness it brings is over 60.
State media has not said what measures those attending the meeting with Ebtekar were now taking. However, the concern about the virus’ spread among Iran’s elite has reached into Austria, where Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg tested negative for it after a recent trip to Tehran.