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Coronavirus Hits Iranian Vice President, Other Officials As Disease Continues To Spread

Iranian Vice President for Women's Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar (center) recently attended a cabinet meeting and sat a few seats away from President Hassan Rohani (right). 

A vice president, a deputy health minister, a former envoy to the Vatican, the head of a medical university, and at least four parliament members are among the Iranian officials who have been infected with the coronavirus in recent days.

The increasing number of officials testing positive for the virus has raised questions about the management of the outbreak in Iran and whether officials are heeding safety measures to protect themselves amid the disease's outbreak in the country that according to the latest official figures has killed 34 people.

However, the BBC's Persian service said a count conducted by its unnamed sources in several hospitals suggests at least 210 people have died in the country as of the night of February 27. The Health Ministry vehemently denied the report.

"It doesn't inspire much confidence when officials who are supposed to protect us and who claim the situation is under control are falling ill," A Tehran-based observer who did not want to be named told RFE/RL.

Iranian Vice President for Women's Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar -- who served as spokeswoman for the Islamic student revolutionaries who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 -- was reported to have tested positive for the virus on February 27, a day after she was seen taking part in a cabinet meeting and sitting a few seats away from President Hassan Rohani.

It wasn't clear if those attending the meeting with Ebtekar, 59, and Rohani, 71, had been tested for the virus. Ebtekar -- whose symptoms are reportedly mild -- has been quarantined at home.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi confirmed he also contracted the coronavirus on February 25, a day after a press conference with government spokesman Ali Rabiei in which Harirchi was seen sweating profusely. Iranian media later reported that Rabiei had tested negative for the virus.

Prominent cleric Hadi Khosroshahi, the Islamic republic's first ambassador to the Vatican, died on February 27 after testing positive for the virus. He was 81 years old.

Two lawmakers, Mojtaba Zolnour -- a representative from Qom and head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, and Mahmud Sadeghi, an outspoken reformist lawmaker, have also said publicly that they have the virus.

On February 28, lawmaker Mohammad Ali Vakili said four of 30 of his colleagues in parliament had tested positive for the coronavirus, though he did not give their names. "It is possible that the number [of infected lawmakers] will increase because so far we only know about the test results for 30," Vakili told the government news agency IRNA.

Mohammad Reza Ghadir, the director of the medical-sciences university in Qom, the Iranian epicenter of the coronavirus, has also contracted the disease, while the head of Qom's health center has been quarantined due to suspicion he may have also been infected, Iranian media reported.

In a video posted online on February 24, Ghadir said he's recovering.

Some reports have also suggested that Morteza Rahmanzadeh, the mayor of District 13 in the Iranian capital, has been infected with the virus, which originated in China in December and was first reported in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom on February 19.

Not Inspiring Confidence

In recent days, many Iranians on Twitter have chided officials for not taking enough precautions to protect themselves during official meetings.

A photo of a meeting of the newly created National Committee for Fighting and Controlling the Coronavirus, where officials were seen touching their faces, led to criticism, with some asking why those pictured did not wear face masks or protective gloves.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on February 28 that state organizations were doing their best to combat the virus. Jahanpur reported the same day a sharp spike in the number of those infected, saying there were currently 388 confirmed cases in the country, and cautioned that the number would likely increase, as Iran has 15 laboratories testing samples.

He said that in the next few days there will be a total of 22 laboratories involved in testing.

Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's Emergencies Program, warned that the outbreak in Iran could be more serious than realized. "The most likely factor is that obviously this disease came unseen and undetected into Iran so the extent of infection may be broader than what we are seeing," Ryan told reporters on February 27.

"There is a very high clinical capacity for managing severely ill patients in Iran, so I don't suspect this has anything to do with clinical care," he added.

Iran has by far the highest death toll from coronavirus outside China.

In order to prevent the further spread of the virus, authorities have said schools will be closed and Friday Prayers were canceled in Tehran and 22 other cities on February 28.

Jahanpur said on Twitter on February 28 that Health Minister Saeed Namaki had asked parliament to cancel all open and closed meetings until "further notice" to protect lawmakers and citizens from the coronavirus.

Iranian state media on February 28 published images of what they said were members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sanitizing and spraying down streets and sidewalks in Qom.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.