Coronavirus: Iran denies cover-up as six deaths reported in Italy

Tehran rejects claim death toll is more than four times higher than official figures suggest

The Iranian government has denied trying to cover up the full extent of an outbreak of the coronavirus, as Italy reported six deaths and officials across the Middle East and Europe scrambled to limit its spread.

On Monday, a lawmaker from Qom – a Shia holy city 75 miles (120 km) south of the capital, Tehran, accused Iran’s health minister of lying about the scale of the outbreak.

According to the semi-official Ilna news agency, which is close to reformists, the lawmaker, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, said there had been 50 deaths from the coronavirus in Qom alone.

“The rest of the media have not published this figure, but we prefer not to censor what concerns the coronavirus because people’s lives are in danger,” the Ilna editor Fatemeh Madiani told Agence France-Presse.

But the country’s deputy health minister rejected the report. In a news conference broadcast live on state television, Iraj Harirchi said 12 people had died from the coronavirus and 66 had been infected. “I categorically deny this information,” he said, adding: “This is not the time for political confrontations. The coronavirus is a national problem.”

Elsewhere in the Middle East on Monday, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq reported their first cases – all involving people who had come from Iran. In Italy, which has become the focal point of the outbreak in Europe, officials said 219 people had tested positive and the death toll was raised to six.

Iran’s government pledged to be transparent about the outbreak. “We will announce any figures [we have] on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” the spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

Iran has been scrambling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak since it announced the first two deaths in Qom on Wednesday last week. Since then, it has said 12 people have died from the virus among 61 infections.