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Iranian firefighters disinfect streets and alleys in Tehran on Wednesday to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Coronavirus: Iran vice-president and two Cabinet members test positive as death toll hits 354

  • Authorities announce that there are some 9,000 confirmed cases across the country
  • Number of infections climbs across Middle East, with 262 in Qatar and 189 in Bahrain

Iran’s senior vice-president and two other Cabinet members have contracted the new coronavirus, a semi-official news agency reported on Wednesday as the death toll in the Islamic Republic from the outbreak rose by 62 to 354.

The report by the Fars news agency, believed to be close to Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, comes as President Hassan Rowhani took control of the country’s much-criticised response to the virus and the Covid-19 illness it causes. Authorities announced that there were some 9,000 confirmed cases of the virus across Iran.

The news also comes amid days of speculation about the health of Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri. Jahangiri has not been seen in pictures of recent top-level meetings, raising concerns about him.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Kuwait announced a two-week shutdown of the country while confirmed cases in Qatar jumped from 24 to 262.

Senior Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri (left) listens as Minister of Health and Medical Education Saeed Namaki speaks at the Headquarters of Prevention and Combating the Coronavirus, in Tehran in February. Photo: Office of the Iranian Vice President via AP

There was no immediate report on state media about the Iranian officials being ill and no other media outlet in Iran immediately carried the report. Fars published it in a picture list of names in Farsi, with Jahangiri’s name at the top, saying he was in quarantine and improving, without elaborating.

Fars said the others who are sick are Ali Asghar Mounesan, minister of cultural heritage, handcrafts and tourism, and Reza Rahmani, minister of industry, mines and business.

The report comes at a sensitive time for Rouhani, who faced criticism for not being out front on the response to the virus. He has been seen at government meetings where members sit metres apart from each other, likely to stop the potential spread of the virus. He also wore latex gloves while planting a tree at a recent event.

Coronavirus: how big is the threat to Iran?

Hardliners long have tried to embarrass Rouhani, whose administration pushed through Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Rouhani has 11 vice-presidents. Another, Massoumeh Ebtekar, earlier fell ill with the virus. Ebtekar is better known to Americans as “Sister Mary”, the English-speaking spokeswoman for those who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and began the 444-day hostage crisis.

Ebtekar tweeted on Wednesday she had recovered from the virus, while linking to images of Western officials who have contracted the illness.

“#Iran faces sanctions & psycho-terrorism,” she wrote. “They portray Iran as corona epicentre, accuse us of undercounting, count afflicted officials as proof. Reality: Numbers are clear, thank God I’m back in my office.”

Across the Middle East, the vast majority of the nearly 10,000 people who have contracted the coronavirus and the Covid-19 illness it causes are in hard-hit Iran or had recently returned from there. The Islamic republic has one of the world’s worst death tolls outside China, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Outside of Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Middle East.

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Kuwait announced late Wednesday the oil-rich nation would close down all work and business for two weeks beginning Thursday. Flights would halt to the nation from Friday, the country said.

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It has over 70 confirmed cases of the new virus. Restaurants, cafes and health clubs also will be closed, the state-run KUNA news agency reported.

Qatar reported a massive jump in cases of the new coronavirus late on Wednesday as well, going up to 262. The small, peninsular nation home to long-haul airline Qatar Airways stressed the new cases had been found in quarantine and not mixing out in the public.

In the Gulf Arab island nation of Bahrain, authorities say their number of confirmed cases on Wednesday spiked by nearly 70 per cent to 189 confirmed cases. The 77 new cases were all on a returning flight of Bahraini evacuees from Iran.

There are concerns that the number of infections across Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, which is struggling to contain or manage its spread. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over.

Among the dead are five Revolutionary Guard members and an unspecified number of the Guard’s volunteer Basij force.

That the Guard is involved in the relief effort of a major catastrophe is not surprising in Iran. The Guard, whose forces include an estimated 125,000-plus troops and 600,000 mission-ready volunteers, routinely respond to the earthquakes that shake the country. Recent floods saw its troops mobilise as well.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, which has barred travel to and from 14 countries and halted pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, announced Wednesday it would close its recently reopened cinemas until further notice.

How Iran’s coronavirus death toll came to be the highest behind only China

Lebanon reported its second death on Wednesday saying a 53-year-old man died of the virus. The Health Ministry said 37 per cent of the cases reported in Lebanon originated from four countries: Egypt, Iran, Switzerland and Britain.

Later on Wednesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said flights will be halted form Iran, Italy, China and South Korea. Diab said Lebanese staying in countries that have large numbers of coronavirus cases have four days to return to Lebanon.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a US$2.8 billion rescue package to stabilise the economy as it grapples with the virus. The money will double a previously announced fund to help businesses hit by the crisis to US$2.4 billion. It also includes roughly US$280 million for the health sector.

Israel has diagnosed a total of 77 cases of the virus.