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New jump in Iran coronavirus deaths, but Rouhani says no plans to quarantine cities

Officials carry out disinfection works on trains in the capital city Tehran. [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 February, 2020

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Iranian state television reported Wednesday that 19 people have been killed by the new coronavirus amid 139 confirmed cases in the country so far.

Iran's president has said there are no immediate plans to quarantine cities, despite an outbreak of the devastating coronavirus in the country.

Iran has the highest death toll outside of China with 19 killed amid 139 cases confirmed on Wednesday.

President Hassan Rouhani went on to acknowledge that it may take "one, two or three weeks" to take control of the disease in Iran, the country being linked to most of the 210 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Middle East region.

That comes after the top official in charge of Iran's response to the coronavirus tested positive for the illness, after downplaying the disease a day earlier.

Still, Rouhani sought to portray the virus crisis in terms of Iran's tense relations with the US

"Coronavirus must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country," Rouhani said, according to a transcript posted to the Iranian presidency's website.

Iranian state television reported Wednesday that 19 people have been killed by the new coronavirus amid 139 confirmed cases in the country so far.

Experts remain concerned that Iran may be underreporting cases and deaths, given the rapid spread from Iran across the Persian Gulf

The announcement by a state TV anchor came as Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour urged Iranians to avoid "nonessential travel," particularly to the hard-hit provinces of the country, such as Gilan and Qom.

The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing over 2,700 deaths, mainly in China. The World Health Organisation has named the illness COVID-19.

Experts remain concerned that Iran may be underreporting cases and deaths, given the rapid spread from Iran across the Persian Gulf.

Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a hard-line lawmaker in Iran alleged Monday there had been 50 deaths in the Iranian city of Qom alone, which was denied by authorities.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's figures still showed no cases confirmed in the Iranian city of Mashhad, though a number of cases now reported in Kuwait are linked to Mashhad.

Read more: How the Middle East is dealing with coronavirus

In Tehran overnight, workers disinfected mass-transit buses and the capital's underground metro system, removing overhead handles in an effort to limit areas the virus could be picked up from.

Traffic again appeared lighter on Tehran's normally gridlocked roads amid a winter rain, as signs warned Iranians not to touch surfaces in crowded areas.

Rouhani's estimate of up to three weeks to control the virus comes after officials repeatedly downplayed its danger.

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That's sparked more concern among Iranians who are already angry over an initial denial by authorities in January that it had accidentally downed an airliner.

A recent parliamentary election also saw the country's lowest-ever recorded turnout.

Jahanpour on Tuesday suggested it could take as long as late April to control the virus.

And with the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, coming 20 March, experts worry about the virus spreading even further through the country, if not halted by then.

"Containment of the COVID-19 virus within Iran will be a challenge because of Iran's poor health infrastructure and traditional unwillingness to communicate freely and openly across all branches of government and between health institutions," the Austin, Texas private intelligence firm Stratfor said.

That worry was echoed by analysts at the Eurasia Group.

"Tehran is likely significantly underestimating the risk posed by an outbreak of coronavirus to its citizens, economy and neighbours," the analysts wrote.

"Iran has a relatively robust public health system, although it has been weakened by US sanctions. But a breakdown in national-level decision-making has severely hampered its ability contain the spread of the virus."

Meanwhile, Egyptian airport officials said the country's national carrier, EgyptAir, has indefinitely extended the suspension of its flights to and from China, for the safety of its passengers.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorised to brief journalists.

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