This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Iranian officials have announced another jump in confirmed cases and deaths from the coronavirus that is causing global havoc since its outbreak began in central China late last year.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told a televised news conference that 385 newly confirmed cases of the COVID-19 illness in Iran brought the total to 978. Eleven new deaths brings the official death toll in Iran from coronavirus to 54, he said.
Those numbers are well below the level that many experts fear the Iranian contagion has reached since officials downplayed the risk of a local outbreak before — in the case of one deputy health minister and several other prominent officials — coming down themselves with the illness.
But even the lower figures suggest that the virus, which brings on pneumonia-like symptoms and whose deadliness is well above seasonal flu, is spreading more rapidly in Iran.
The biggest rise in newly reported Iranian cases was said to be in the province around the capital, Tehran, where 170 people tested positive for the virus.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on February 29 that he was ready to help Iran deal with its increasingly deadly outbreak of coronavirus if the country he has bitterly criticized and sanctioned asks for assistance.
“If we can help the Iranians with this problem, we are certainly willing to do so…. All they have to do is ask,” Trump told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington on February 29.
“We will have great professionals over there,” he added, referring to Iran, which has become the hot spot for the disease in the Middle East.
The United States, which has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, said it had formally told Tehran of its willingness to assist in the crisis. The was message sent via Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran.
Many critics and outside experts have expressed concerns that Tehran is severely underreporting the magnitude of the crisis in the country, allegations the government has vehemently denied.
The virus has hit at least 63 countries, with China — where the outbreak began — the hardest hit but with numbers rising elsewhere.
The virus had killed at least 2,761 people and infected 79,826 others in mainland China by March 1.
Worldwide it has infected at least 86,986 people and killed more than 100. The strongest clusters of the disease outside of China are in Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea.
Several top Iranian officials have contracted the virus, including Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president for women and family affairs, a deputy health minister, and five lawmakers.
Iran has been linked to most of the over 200 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the region, and many countries in and outside the Caucasus, Middle East, and Central Asia have imposed restrictions on travel to and from Iran in an effort to curtail the disease’s spread.
On March 1, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in neighboring Armenia reported the small country’s first coronavirus case, that of a 29-year-old man who recently returned with his wife from Iran.