Iran's Health Ministry has dismissed a claim by a lawmaker from Qom that the death toll from the disease in the holy Shi'ite city is about four times higher than the official number and that the government is covering up the extent of the disease's spread in Iran.
Speaking in parliament on February 24, Qom lawmaker Ahmad Amirabadi-Farahani was quoted by the semiofficial ILNA news agency as saying that about 50 people had died in the city after being infected with the virus.
But Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi insisted the death toll in the country was 12 people and he challenged Amirabadi-Farahani to provide the ministry with the names of those he claimed had died from the virus.
"This number [of 50 deaths] is false," Harirchi said at a news conference on live television. "This is not the time for political confrontations."
"If anyone is making such claims, that person should send us the names [of those who are said to have died]," he added, saying the ministry "is very confident" about its statistics.
"I say it here publicly that I will resign if the number of those who died in Qom due to this disease is half or even one-quarter of the number [provided by Amirabadi-Farahani]," Harirchi told journalists.
Amirabadi-Farahani accepted the challenge and claimed he had given a list of 40 of the deceased in Qom to the health minister.
Harirchi said the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in Iran was just 61, but added that some 900 other suspected cases were being tested.
With 12 deaths, Iran has by far the most coronavirus deaths of any country in the world except for China, where the disease originated.
If the totals of 12 dead from 61 infections are accurate, Iran would also have the highest incidence of death due to the coronavirus, of nearly 20 percent. The worldwide mortality rate due to the virus is approximately 2 percent.
A day before his statement in parliament, Amirabadi-Farahani criticized the government in a tweet for "not taking the coronavirus [outbreak] in Qom seriously."
The controversy comes amid public distrust over the official numbers and the government's handling of the virus in Iran. That lack of confidence in the clerical establishment has been exacerbated by the January downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane and what is seen as an initial attempt to cover up that deadly tragedy.
Many of the coronavirus infections and at least five of the 12 official deaths have been recorded in Qom, where the first two Iranian fatalities from the virus were reported on February 19.
Media have reported that the head of the Medical Sciences University in Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, is among those quarantined in the city.
Amirabadi-Farahani said on Twitter on February 23 that Ghadir, who had said Qom's "situation is not good" in terms of dealing with the outbreak of coronavirus, had tested positive.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on February 23 that among those who died from the virus was a businessman who regularly traveled between China and Iran on indirect flights.
Amirabadi-Farahani said Qom should be quarantined, while also suggesting that nurses and other health-care workers lacked the necessary protective gear to treat coronavirus patients.
Harirchi told journalists that a quarantine in the holy city -- where many senior ayatollahs and thousands of religious students are based -- is unlikely to be efficient in controlling the spread of the disease that emerged in China in December.
"We do not agree with quarantining Qom; the practice of using a quarantine is pre-World War I for the plague and cholera and Chinese [officials] are also unhappy with the quarantines imposed [in their country]," Harirchi said.
The son of an 83-year-old woman who died in Qom over the weekend after being infected with the coronavirus told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that she died while in quarantine in a hospital.
He said doctors did not test him even though he had taken care of his mother before she was transferred to the hospital. "They asked me if I coughed and asked a few other questions," the man, who identified himself as Reza, said. "Then they said, 'You can go.'"
A journalist in Qom tweeted that he believes about two-thirds of the city's residents have locked themselves in their homes to remain safe. "About 80 percent of the city is largely closed, except for pharmacies and hypermarkets," journalist Mreza Danaei said on Twitter.
But he added that the area around the shrine of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of the eighth Shi'ite imam, was "a disaster," because several outdoor restaurants are open to the public.
The hard-line Fars news agency reported on February 24 that Fatima's shrine -- which attracts tens of thousands of Muslim believers from many different countries each year -- remains open although it is being sanitized.
The shrine could be particularly infectious for the spread of coronavirus because people honor the Islamic saint by praying and circumambulating her tomb while also touching and kissing it.
Clerics in the city had reportedly opposed closing the shrine, with Hojatoleslam Mohammad Saeedi, the Qom representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that linking the shrine to the deadly virus is part of a U.S. plot to make the holy city appear unsafe.
Another cleric, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hosseininejad, was quoted by IRNA as saying that closing the shrine would send the wrong message.
"Why is there a need to close the shrine? People should take precautions," said Hosseininejad, who is among the officials in charge of the shrine, as quoted by official government news agency IRNA. He said that mostly foreign pilgrims, including many from Pakistan and India, were visiting the shrine.
Health Ministry officials have called for the suspension of all religious gatherings in Qom. They also vowed transparency during their daily press briefings.
Authorities have also announced special measures, including the closure of schools and cinemas and the playing of soccer matches without spectators.
Banners have also been hung in several cities instructing people how to stay safe and avoid catching the virus.