Iran's coronavirus death toll rises to 19

Iran has the highest death toll outside of China

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran's president said Tehran has no immediate plans to quarantine cities over the new coronavirus rapidly spreading across the country, even as the Islamic Republic suffers the highest death toll outside of China with 19 killed amid 139 cases confirmed on Wednesday.

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President Hassan Rouhani went on to acknowledge that may take "one, two or three weeks" to get control of the virus in Iran, linked to most of the over 210 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the Mideast. That comes after the top official in charge of Iran's response to the coronavirus tested positive for the illness after a day earlier trying to downplay the disease.

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

"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.

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, photo, a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom 78 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Ahmad Zohrabi/ISNA via AP)

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

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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.

A worker disinfects a public bus against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, in early morning of Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

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.

"We must be optimistic, because pessimism causes us to attract this disease," said Afsaneh Azarloo, a Tehran resident. "We should be optimistic and hope that nothing bad will happen to us."

That optimism was not shared by another passer-by, who merely gave his name as Saeed.

"I'm worried. It's the first time I have left home after a week," he said. "My home is now my workplace too."

Rouhani's estimate of as much as three weeks to control the virus comes after officials repeatedly downplaying the virus previously. That's spark more concern among Iranians already angry over nationwide economic protests, the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and Iran accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner and then denying it for days. A recent parliamentary election also saw the country's lowest-ever recorded turnout.

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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 March 20, experts worry about the virus spreading even further across the country if not stopped 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.

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"Tehran is likely significantly underestimating the risk posed by an outbreak of coronavirus to its citizens, economy and neighbors," 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 Wednesday, 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 authorized to brief journalists.