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Coronavirus Cases Mount Across Middle East as Global Concern Grows

Iran has reported 19 deaths as a result of the disease, and public health agencies are working to prevent further spread.

Officials disinfect subway trains to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, on February 26, 2020. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Officials disinfect subway trains to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, on February 26, 2020. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — More than 81,000 people have contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus, and at least 2,770 have died, according to data from WHO, CDC, China’s National Health Commission, and other sources, which is being compiled and analyzed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The vast majority of these deaths, 2,615, have so far occurred in the Hubei province of China. But no other province, and indeed no other region or country in the world has exceeded Iran’s death toll. That number currently stands at 19, raising fears that the number of people infected in the country greatly exceeds the reported total of 139 and that the disease has secured a foothold outside of Asia.

According to data published in JAMA, the case fatality rate is 2.3%, but may turn out to be higher in localized areas with fewer health interventions. For example, Iran’s figures, if accurate, would suggest a rate of 13.7%.

Among the steps being taken to contain the virus, the Iranian government reports schools in 14 of Iran’s provinces have been closed, 230 hospitals have been dedicated to fighting the disease, and buses and subway cars are being disinfected.

The situation in Iran has deteriorated rapidly. On February 24, a government official said Iran has “no problem” containing the virus. A day later, the Iranian deputy health minister charged with overseeing that country’s response to the virus has tested positive to COVID-19.

In response to the outbreak in Iran, and amid ambiguities surrounding the true case totals and public health situation, several nations, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have banned flights to and from Iran.

The next highest case totals in the region are found across the Persian Gulf: 23 in Bahrain, 13 in the United Arab Emirates, 11 in Kuwait, and four in Oman.  Five cases have also been reported in Iraq. No deaths have been reported in those nations.

Saudi Arabia, which was the originating location for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, has not reported any cases. MERS is a far more deadly coronavirus. Since 2012, there have been 2,494 laboratory-confirmed cases and 858 linked deaths, a mortality rate of 34.4%, according to the latest WHO figures.

However, MERS has been constrained to only 27 countries since 2012, whereas COVID-19 is already present in more than 40 countries.

Elsewhere in the region, case totals are lower, and Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria have each reported one case. But public health agencies are still taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Lebanon decided on Tuesday to restrict flights to and from countries with COVID-19 and ban flights for Lebanese religious pilgrims, who often travel to Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

In Israel, local media reported today that 1,600 Israelis are currently under home quarantine. The Israeli ministry of health has mandated 14-day quarantines for travelers returning from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Thailand. Most of those quarantined have returned from Thailand.

Quarantines have also been instituted for people who were in contact with a group of tourists from South Korea, nine of whom tested positive for the disease after returning to South Korea. Visitors to Taiwan, Italy, and Australia have been given procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of the disease, but have not been placed under quarantine.

Israel is denying entry to all non-residents who visited South Korea or Japan in the past two weeks.

Four Israelis contracted the disease while on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and an additional two tested positive after returning to Israel.

After consultations with the health ministry, organizers of marathon set to be run in Tel Aviv this Friday announced that foreigners currently in-country would be allowed to run, but that foreigners still outside of Israel would be barred from running.

This comes during a tense week in the region. A military clash at the Gaza-Israel border preceded rocket fire into southern Israel, and the country is on the cusp of the third national election in the past 12 months.

Still, in Tel Aviv, residents could be seen going about their normal business on Wednesday, just about all of them without masks.

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