WASHINGTON — Iran has the highest reported number of deaths from the coronavirus outside China, raising questions about how the government is handling the public health crisis and whether the often secretive regime has been fully transparent about the extent of the outbreak.
Iran’s health ministry spokesman said on Thursday that 26 Iranians have died out of a total of 245 positive cases.
Apart from China, where it was first detected in December, Iran has recorded the most deaths from the new form of coronavirus. There have been 2,747 deaths in China, out of a total of at least 78,497 confirmed cases.
But Iran’s reported mortality rate — about 11 percent — surpasses the rate for other countries by a dramatic margin. China’s reported mortality rate is currently at 3.5 percent. In South Korea, 13 patients have died out of 1,766 cases, for a reported mortality rate of slightly less than 1 percent. A U.S. soldier is among those infected in South Korea.
Four doctors in Iran who are familiar with how authorities are handling the outbreak, including two who work at hospitals where infected patients have been treated, told an NBC News reporter in New York that the total number of those infected is likely substantially higher than the number released by health authorities.
A top official in Iran, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the highest ranking woman in Iran’s government and a vice president for women and family affairs, has tested positive for the corona virus, state media reported, the latest senior official to contract the COVID-19 illness. Ebtekar, the English-speaking spokesperson for the group of Iranian students who seized hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, was captured in a photo attending a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday.
Two members of Iran’s parliament have contracted the virus as well as the deputy health minister, who was seen wiping his brow and looking feverish at a press conference a day before he announced he had tested positive.
While the government has imposed some restrictions on holy sites and called off some Friday prayer services, President Rouhani has said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities hit by the virus.
Amid a shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitizer in shops, public health experts say Iran could become the hub of a major outbreak across the Middle East, especially given its porous borders with unstable countries at war or in turmoil.
Iranian officials reported the first case of virus in the religious city of Qom last week, and coronavirus has spread to at least seven other provinces. Other countries in the region, including Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Afghanistan, reported their first cases this week and said the patients had recently visited Iran.
In an echo of public reaction in China, critics of the Iranian regime in and outside the country are questioning whether officials in Tehran have given the public a full and accurate picture of the outbreak. But Iranian officials have rejected any suggestion that they are playing down the epidemic.
The head of Medical Science University in Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, said on state television that the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures on the outbreak in the city.
Asked how many people had been placed in quarantine, Ghadir said, “The Health Ministry has told us not to announce any new statistics.”
Ghadir also said that “most of the tests have to be done in Tehran, and Tehran announces it.” His comments suggested that diagnostic tests were mainly being conducted in the capital.
Outside medical experts said reporting on the total number of cases of infection in Iran was possibly lagging behind reporting on deaths. That could be because Iranian authorities are missing less severe cases across the country because of how they are testing and diagnosing patients, because of how information is shared or because of flawed medical equipment.
“This appears to be a reporting issue,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University and a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Reporting on the cases of infections may have fallen behind the reporting on the deaths.
It’s unclear whether Iran has the ability to find out how many people have been infected, which would require venturing out to towns and villages to conduct tests and not simply relying on who goes to large hospitals with severe symptoms, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.