Iran's Health Ministry says the number of reported deaths linked to a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak in the country has increased by four to 19, while neighboring Pakistan has reported its first cases.
Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on February 26 that a total of 139 people -- an increase of 44 from the previous day -- had tested positive for the virus in various parts of the country.
Jahanpur urged Iranians to avoid "nonessential travel," particularly to hard-hit areas of Iran.
He said 15 of the new COVID-19 cases surfaced in Qom Province; nine in Gilan; four in Tehran; three in Khuzestan; two each in Sistan and Baluchistan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, and Fars; and one each in Markazi, Kermanshah, Ardebil, Mazandaran, Lorestan, Semnan, and Hormozgan.
Meanwhile, President Hassan Rohani acknowledged that it might take "one, two, or three weeks" to get control of the virus in Iran, which has posted the highest death toll from the virus outside of China.
There was no plan to quarantine any district or city, Rohani said, according to a transcript posted on the Iranian presidency's website.
He also said that the issue "must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country," a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Iranian officials "tell the truth" about the outbreak, amid speculation that Tehran is underreporting its extent.
In a statement on February 26, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused Iranian authorities of obstructing journalists trying to cover the epidemic in the country.
Journalists have been protesting on social media against the censorship, lies, and incompetence of the officials in charge, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said.
Meanwhile, the head of the Iranian police force's cyberunit said 24 people accused of online rumor-mongering about the spread of the coronavirus had been arrested.
Vahid Majid said 118 Internet users were "talked to and let go" after receiving warnings, according to semiofficial news agency ISNA.
Georgia also reported its first case, a 50-year-old man who returned from Iran through Azerbaijan on February 25, according to Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze.
In Armenia, 52 of the country's citizens arrived at Yerevan's Zvartnots Airport on February 26 on a flight arranged by the government after they were evacuated from Iran.
They wore medical masks and received assistance from staff deployed by the Health Ministry, but officials said none of the passengers appeared to have coronavirus symptoms.
Pakistan on February 26 confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus but said both patients were in "stable" condition.
"Both cases are being taken care of according to clinical standard protocols & both of them are stable. No need to panic, things are under control," Health Minister Zafar Mirza tweeted.
One of the cases was detected in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, an unnamed provincial official said. It was not immediately clear where the second infected person was based.
Mirza added that the two traveled to Iran recently. Pakistan closed its border with Iran last week.
The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing over 2,700 deaths, mainly in mainland China, where the virus emerged late last year.
In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and over 2,700 cases.
France on February 26 announced the first death, a 60-year-old man, France's general director of health Jerome Salomon said.
Including the dead man, three new cases were identified overnight, bringing the total number of diagnosed infections in France to 17.
Besides Iran, Italy is another hot spot for the virus in addition to China, South Korea, and Japan.
The EU country has registered 374 cases of the virus and 12 deaths as of February 26. From there it has spread elsewhere to Europe, with North Macedonia confirming its first case in a woman who recently arrived from Italy.
"The patient tested positive for coronavirus.... She is the first patient in North Macedonia to have tested positive for this pathogen," Macedonian Health Minister Venko Filipce said.
Iran has been linked to most of the over 200 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the Middle East.
Kuwait's Health Ministry said on February 26 that seven new cases had been diagnosed in the Persian Gulf state among people who recently visited Iran.
Many countries in and outside the region have imposed restrictions on travel to and from Iran in an effort to curtail the disease's spread.
Kazakhstan, which has registered no cases of the coronavirus, on February 26 said it planned to suspend flights to and from Iran from March 1.
And Russia's consumer-protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, advised citizens not to travel to Iran and two other hot spots -- Italy and South Korea -- "until the epidemiological situation stabilized."