DESPARDES — Five Iranians — including two elderly people in the holy city of Qom. have died after contracting the coronavirus, with world health authorities warning it has spread to multiple cities, while Israel and Lebanon declared their first domestic cases as the deadly epidemic spreads across the Middle East.
Asked on Friday if the new cases put the crisis at a tipping point, the World Health Organization (WHO) director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the “window of opportunity is narrowing, so we need to act quickly before it closes completely”.
“This outbreak could go in any direction,” Tedros said. “If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands.”
Since it outbreak in December, the mysterious virus, named COVID-19, has killed 2,345 people in China, the epicenter of the epidemic, and 17 elsewhere in the world.
A sixth fatality has been reported in Iran: a patient died in the central city of Arak.
Iran has reported more fatalities from COVID-19 than any other country besides China.
On Saturday, Tehran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centers due to the the death toll along with 10 new cases. The latest cases take to 28 the total number of confirmed infections in Iran. The deaths are the first in the Middle East region and the highest number of fatalities outside the Far East.
The outbreak in Iran began in the city of Qom, an often-visited religious destination. The health ministry official Minou Mohrez warned it had since spread to several cities, including the capital, Tehran, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Cases have been reported in the provinces of Tehran, Gilan, Markazi, Qom, and Hamadan.
“It’s possible that it exists in all cities in Iran,” she said, adding the source of the virus was likely a Chinese worker in Qom.
A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.
Balochistan on Alert
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday called up Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan and discussed with him the coronavirus spread in Iran and its implications for the border province.
The Pakistani province of Balochistan bordering Iran has been put on high alert, as authorities have rushed health teams to the Taftan border crossing and declared an emergency in districts along the south-western frontier.
There have been only a few cases in the Middle East so far. Nine have been confirmed in the United Arab Emirates, seven of whom are Chinese nationals, and one in Egypt.
In Israel, the health ministry announced the country’s first case, saying the patient was an Israeli woman who had been quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Another large cluster has been detected in South Korea, which reported 142 additional confirmed cases for February 21, bringing the nation’s total to 346.
In Italy, a 78-year-old man died of the coronavirus, becoming the first European fatality for the disease.