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COVID-19 outbreak: Virus ravages Iran as emergency services chief infected

23:57 | 03/03/2020

COVID-19 has claimed 77 lives in Iran, officials said on Tuesday (Mar 3), as the emergency services chief became the latest high-ranking official to be infected in the deadliest outbreak outside China.

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covid 19 outbreak virus ravages iran as emergency services chief infected
An Iranian medic treats a patient infected with the COVID-19 virus at a hospital in Tehran on Mar 1, 2020. (Photo: AFP/KOOSHA MAHSHID FALAHI / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY)

Iran has scrambled to halt the rapid spread of the virus, shutting schools and universities, suspending major cultural and sporting events, and cutting back on work hours.

On Tuesday it announced another 11 deaths and 835 new infections -- the biggest increase in a single day since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the Islamic republic nearly two weeks ago.

"According to the latest figures, 835 new patients have been added" to the overall number of infections, Iran's stand-in deputy health minister Alireza Raisi said.

"Unfortunately, we have 11 new deaths, and with this amount we have reached 2,336 new confirmed cases and a total of 77 dead," he said in remarks aired live on state television.

The national emergency services chief Pirhossein Kolivand was the latest high-profile official to contract the illness, a spokesman for the services told AFP.

Confirmation of his infection came a day after Tasnim news agency reported that the virus claimed the life of Mohammad Mirmohammadi, 72, a member of the Expediency Council which advises Iran's supreme leader.

Mirmohammadi, 71, died at a north Tehran hospital of the virus, state media said. His mother had reportedly died of the coronavirus in recent days as well.

According to AP, Mirmohammadi, though not particularly well-known to the Iranian public, served as a top official in the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, now the country's supreme leader. The state-run IRNA news agency described Mirmohammadi, whose father also once served on the Expediency Council, as having a close relationship to Khamenei.

The Expediency Council advises the supreme leader, as well as settles disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, Iran's constitutional watchdog that also oversees the country's elections. The 45-member Expediency Council, which also includes former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Khamenei, last met in February with Mirmohammadi on hand.

Harirchi admitted he had tested positive a day after he had coughed and wiped sweat from his brow during a news conference that was beamed live around the country on February 25.

covid 19 outbreak virus ravages iran as emergency services chief infected
People wearing face masks walk on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 2, 2020. (Photo: AP)

Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as ''Sister Mary,'' the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.

Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, himself addressing journalists by teleconference over concerns about the virus, acknowledged the challenges remaining for the Islamic Republic.

Aid has been reaching Iran, despite international firms worried about conducting business with Tehran after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sanctions. Some 7.5 tons of aid from the World Health Organization flew into Iran from the United Arab Emirates.

The WHO said a team of experts flew into Tehran Monday evening to help local health workers respond to the outbreak and deliver medical supplies. It added a WHO worker in Iran was sick with the virus as well.

Meanwhile, France, Germany and the United Kingdom said they would urgently fly laboratory tests for the virus into Iran, as well as protective body suits and gloves. They also offered close to 5 million euros ($5.5 million) in financial support.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked those donating supplies and said Tehran still needed protective gear, ventilators and test kits.

While Iran has closed schools and universities to stop the spread of the virus, major Shiite shrines have remained open despite civilian authorities calling for them to be closed. The holy cities of Mashhad and Qom in particular, both home to shrines, have been hard-hit by the virus. Shiites often touch and kiss shrines as a sign of their faith. Authorities have been cleaning the shrines with disinfectants.

Police have arrested one man who posted a video showing himself licking the metal enclosing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the most-important Shiite saint buried in the country, according to reports by semiofficial news agencies. In the video, the man said he licked the metal to ''allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind.''

Iran announced on Feb 19 its first two deaths from the coronavirus in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims from abroad.

The country now has the highest death toll for any country outside China, where the virus has killed more than 2,900 people since late December.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to stick to hygiene guidelines to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.

"The health care guidelines for preventing infection from this virus should be observed," said Khamenei, who was seen on state television wearing gloves as he planted a tree.

Khamenei said Iran was being transparent with its figures on the outbreak and accused other countries of trying to conceal them.

"The #Coronavirus has affected many countries," he was quoted as saying on his official Twitter account.

"Our officials have reported with sincerity and transparency since day one.

"However, some countries where the outbreak has been more serious have tried to hide it.

"Of course, we ask God to heal the sick in those countries too," he added.

Iran on Saturday dismissed a BBC Persian report that the real number of coronavirus deaths in the country was more than 200.

The United States and Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have accused Iran of concealing information about the outbreak./.

VNF/AFP/AP