Iran preparing to test tens of thousands for coronavirus

By Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

Iran is preparing for the possibility of “tens of thousands” of people getting tested for coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases spiked, an official said.

Covid-19 has killed 43 people out of 593 confirmed cases in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.

He disputed a report by the BBC’s Persian service citing anonymous medical officials in Iran putting the death toll at more than four times as much.

But the number of known cases versus deaths would put the virus’s death rate in Iran at over 7%, much higher than other countries. That has worried experts at the World Health Organisation and elsewhere that Iran may be under-reporting the number of cases.

Central Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

But even as Iran sends spray trucks and fumigators into the streets, officials still are trying to downplay the virus’s reach.

The virus has infected more than 85,000 people and caused more than 2,900 deaths since emerging in China.

Iran has the highest death toll outside China. Of more than 720 confirmed cases across the Middle East, the majority trace back to the Islamic Republic.

Saturday’s new toll of 593 confirmed cases represents a jump of 205 — a 150% increase from the day before. Mr Jahanpour has warned that large increases will happen as Iran now has 15 laboratories testing for the virus.

Late on Friday, a BBC Persian report citing sources in Iran’s medical community put the death toll at at least 210, but Mr Jahanpour disputed the report as politically motivated, conflating other causes of deaths with the coronavirus and relying on sources without access to Iran’s testing labs.

However, he also suggested “tens of thousands” could seek testing for coronavirus, and encouraged people to continue to avoid mass gatherings — even funerals for those who have died of the virus.

“The safest place is our homes and our cities,” he said. “We have to reduce our visits, even attending to funerals, and of course those people who are mourning, will feel guilty if they find that their ceremony causes the disease to spread.”

Concerns continue to grow as online videos showed an angry crowd setting fire to the courtyard of a medical clinic in the southern city of Bandar Abbas. Semi-official media reported those gathered wrongly believed the clinic housed people sick with the coronavirus.

Precautions on public transport (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

On Saturday, Bahrain threatened to prosecute travellers who came from Iran and had not been tested for the coronavirus, and barred public gatherings for two weeks.

The island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia has been hard-hit with cases and shut down some flights to halt the spread of the virus.

All of Bahrain’s cases link back to Iran, where even senior officials have contracted the virus.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said 2,292 people had come to the kingdom from Iran before the announcement of the outbreak there. Of those, only 310 had called authorities and undergone testing, the ministry said, raising the possibility of the untested being arrested and charged if they refuse.

On Saturday, Qatar announced its first coronavirus case, a Qatari citizen who was on an earlier evacuation flight from Iran.

Saudi Arabia announced it would bar citizens of the Gulf Co-operation Council from Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina over concerns about the virus’s spread. The GCC is a six-nation group including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday closed off the holy sites to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, Kuwait simply has told its citizens not to travel abroad.