(AP) — A staggering 50 people have died in the Iranian city of Qom from the new coronavirus this month, a lawmaker was quoted as saying on Monday, even as the Health Ministry insisted only 12 deaths have been recorded nationwide.
The new death toll reported by the Qom representative, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, is significantly higher than the 47 total cases of infections state TV had reported just hours earlier. Iran’s health ministry now says total infections have risen to 61, but a spokesman said deaths remained at 12.
Still, questions of transparency are being raised as the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.
There are concerns that clusters of the new coronavirus in Iran, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread.
Farahani, the lawmaker, said the 50 deaths in Qom date as far back as Feb. 13. Iran first officially reported cases of the virus and its first deaths on Feb. 19.
Farahani said more than 250 people are quarantined in Qom.
“I think the performance of the administration in controlling the virus has not been successful,” Farahani said, referring to the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
His comments represent the most public criticism levied yet against the government for its handling of the virus, which originated in China in December.
“None of the nurses have access to proper protective gear,” Farahani said, adding that some health care specialists had left the city. “So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront corona by the administration.
While the lawmaker’s harsh criticism is rare in Iran, it reflects deep-seated public mistrust of the government, particularly in the days since the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January that killed all 176 on board amid heightened tensions with the U.S. Officials in Iran tried to conceal the cause of the crash before admitting Revolutionary Guard forces had shot the plane down, mistaking it as enemy target.
Ian Mackay, who studies viruses at Australia’s University of Queensland said the latest figures reported by the lawmaker mean that “Iran could become the hotspot for seeding countries that have travel with Iran ... a source outside of China.”
The outbreak of the virus in Iran comes as its economy buckles under pressure from U.S. economic sanctions. The virus threatens to isolate Iran even further as neighboring countries closed their borders with Iran.
Authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shut their borders with Iran, announced their first confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday. Kuwait and Bahrain also announced their first cases. In all four countries, the infected patients had links with Iran.
Travelers from Iran infected with the virus have also been confirmed in Canada, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
The head of the World Health Organization expressed concerns Monday over the virus’ spread in Iran and Italy.