Iran’s deputy health minister tested positive for coronavirus Tuesday, showing the growing reach of the COVID-19 virus as governments around the world struggle to try to contain it. The growth of cases in Iran is a new concern for global health experts because of the country’s role as a regional hub and the presence of a high number of constantly shifting regional populations, including religious pilgrims and migrant workers who often traverse state borders into neighboring countries. Iran’s geopolitical isolation also poses problems in information exchange to contain the virus, which Iran’s health ministry confirmed has now been contracted by Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who is now in quarantine.
The news comes after Iran’s government announced Tuesday that 15 people had died from the virus and five of Iran’s neighbors reported their first cases, all in people who had links to Iran. Iraq and Afghanistan both closed their borders with Iran after diagnosing their first coronavirus cases. The United Arab Emirates, with one of the world’s busiest airports, has suspended all travel to and from Iran. The Iranian government said the total number of coronavirus cases now stood at 95, but that number is surely far too low considering the numbers of deaths attributed to the virus, which has maintained a worldwide mortality rate in the range of 2 percent of cases so far.
One Iranian lawmaker told the semi-official ILNA news agency that the death toll was, in fact, 50, dating back to before Iran officially announced its first case. There are concerns that the virus has been in the country for far longer than the government is officially acknowledging, given Iran near-simultaneous announcement of the country’s first case and first death. Adding to worries about the pervasiveness of the virus, Iranian news reported that the head of a medical university in Qom, charged with overseeing the response in the city, is now in quarantine.
“Iran’s economy has been strangled by sanctions, its people have lost trust in their government and its leaders are isolated from much of the world, providing little clarity about the extent of the epidemic,” the New York Times reports. “Iranians, distrusting the authorities, were ignoring official urgings to stay away from hospitals for fear of spreading the disease, instead crowding into emergency rooms to get themselves tested.”
Elsewhere, South Korea confirmed 144 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, bringing the country total to just under 1,000, the most outside of China. The Chinese government reported 508 new cases and 74 additional deaths, putting the nationwide infections at nearly 78,000 and the total deaths at 2,663. Italy has recorded the most cases outside of Asia and imposed sweeping restrictions on movement in the country’s north. Meanwhile, in New Delhi Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump told business leaders at a roundtable that he thinks coronavirus is “a problem that is going to go away.”
Update, Feb. 25, 2020: This post has been updated with new information about Sadeghi contracting coronavirus.