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Day after sweaty press conf, Iran deputy health minister says he has coronavirus

Iraj Harirchi isolates himself at home; revelation comes a day after he was seen sweating and coughing during press conference in which he denied mass deaths from disease

Screen capture from video if Iran's Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, during a press conference about the spread of the coronavirus, February 24, 2020. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video if Iran's Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, during a press conference about the spread of the coronavirus, February 24, 2020. (Twitter)

Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, has been infected with the new coronavirus, he said on Tuesday, amid a major outbreak in the Islamic republic.

Harichi said in a video clip he was “formally announcing” that he has the virus, but that he was sure “Iran will overcome” the outbreak.

“The coronavirus test for Mr Harirchi, the deputy health minister who was on the front lines combating the coronavirus, was positive,” Alireza Vahabzadeh, a media adviser to the health minister, said in a tweet earlier Tuesday.

Harirchi coughed, wiped his face and eyes, and appeared to be sweating heavily during a press conference on Monday with government spokesman Ali Rabiei.

At the conference, Harirchi denied a lawmaker’s claim that 50 people had died from the virus in the Shiite shrine city of Qom, saying he would “resign” if the number proves true.

Harirchi said in the video he posted online Tuesday that he had quarantined himself at his home.

Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, says in a clip from his home that he has been infected with the new coronavirus, February 25, 2019 (Screenshot)

Having the top official in charge of stopping the virus fall sick with it is just the latest woe to befall Iran as the UAE cut off Iranian flights from the country.

The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people. The flight ban, which will last at least a week, shows the growing concern over the spread of the virus in Iran amid worries the outbreak may be larger than what authorities there now acknowledge.

Iran confirmed three more deaths and 34 new infections on Tuesday, taking the country’s overall death toll to 15 and infection tally to 95.

And an Iranian MP, Mahmoud Sadeghi, also confirmed he was sick in a tweet in which he said he had “little hope of living in this world” due to the illness. Sadeghi used the opportunity to call for “political prisoners” and their families to be allowed to “leave” the epidemic, though it was not clear exactly what he meant by that.

The Islamic republic has been hit by the deadliest coronavirus outbreak by far outside China.

According to the health ministry, most of the deaths and infections outside Qom are among people who have recently visited the holy city.

The ministry’s spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 16 of the new cases were confirmed in Qom, while nine were in Tehran, and two each in Alborz, Gilan and Mazandaran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to reassure the nation in a speech on Tuesday, calling the new coronavirus an “uninvited and inauspicious passenger.”

“We will get through corona,” Rouhani said. “We will get through the virus.”

President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a ceremony inaugurating a new highway that connects Tehran to the north of the country, Iran, February 25, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The virus appeared to be spreading to new parts of Iran, as one new case was also reported in each of the provinces of Fars and Khorasan Razavi, as well as Qeshm island.

Despite being Iran’s epicenter of the outbreak, Qom has yet to be quarantined.

Also Tuesday, Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, according to the state-run KUNA news agency, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.

Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from the country.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Health Ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf.

Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary.

A Pakistan doctor enters an isolation ward set up as a preventative measure following the deadly Coronavirus outbreak, at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi, Pakistan, February 3, 2020. (Fareed Khan/AP)

A Turkish Airlines flight from Tehran to Istanbul landed in Ankara with 17 passengers suspected of having coronavirus, including some who had been to the Iranian city of Qom, Turkey’s CNN-Turk broadcaster reported Tuesday. The passengers were to be quarantined at an Ankara hospital that had previously quarantined Turks returning from China’s Hubei province. Turkish Airlines has temporarily suspended most flights with Iran, apart from those with Tehran.

Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the Turks on board were being repatriated due to the outbreak in Iran. All 132 passengers and crew on board would be quarantined for 14 days at the same hospital where Turkish citizens returning from China had been quarantined. “We are engaged in the maximum effort possible to protect our country from this ilness,” Koca said.

In Pakistan, about 100 pilgrims, mostly minority Pakistani Shiites, have been quarantined at a government building after returning from Iran, officials said Tuesday. The pilgrims had returned before Pakistan on Saturday closed its border with Iran at the crossing in the town of Taftan in southwestern Baluchistan province.

More than 7,000 Pakistani pilgrims remain still in Iran where health authorities will have to declare them free of the coronavirus before they can go home. Pakistan last week suspended flight operations with China, where thousands of Pakistanis have been stranded since the infectious spread there. Islamabad has no immediate plans to evacuate Pakistani citizens from China.

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