WHO Says Coronavirus Cases in Iran Are 'Flattening Off,' Despite Iranian Health Official Claiming Half a Million Infected

The novel coronavirus outbreak in Iran has shown signs of slowing with a "flattening" of the number of cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, this seems to contradict comments made by a top Iranian health official who said the day before: "The coronavirus curve has not flattened anywhere in the country."

"Due to an impressive scaling up of many of the control measures, we have seen a flattening off of the number of cases in Iran and in fact, some suggestion, in recent days of perhaps a decline in the number of new cases," the Acting Regional Emergency Director for the WHO East Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO), Richard Brennan, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

However, earlier this week, a member of Iran's national COVID-19 task force, Hamid Souri, claimed around half a million people in Iran are infected, he told IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) on Monday.

"The current estimate is that about 500,000 people in the country are infected with the coronavirus," Souri said, adding that is was not exact "as asymptomatic patients have not been identified."

Pointing to rising numbers of cases in several provinces and the capital Tehran, Souri said, "The coronavirus curve has not flattened anywhere in the country," Al Arabiya reported.

The Middle Eastern nation has over 62,500 confirmed cases, including 3,872 deaths, while more than 27,000 have recovered, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday. Iran once had the highest number of deaths outside China. But its death toll ranking has now dropped to sixth place, after Italy, Spain, the U.S., France and the U.K., as of Wednesday.

The country reported 133 new deaths on Tuesday and 2,089 new cases over the previous 24 hours, bringing its total cases to 62,589, a spokesperson for Iran's Ministry of Health and Medical Education, Kianush Jahanpoor, confirmed on Iranian state television.

The number of new cases in Iran appeared to plateau from around 30 days since 30 daily infections were first reported, according to Financial Times' analysis of available data sources. From the 30th day, the number of new infections appeared to hover between nearly 2,000 and 3,500 for just over 10 days, the FT reports.

The daily death toll appear to start flattening out from around 22 days since three daily deaths were first reported. The number of new deaths hovered at around 150 for nearly 10 days from then, according to the FT.

Last month, Brennan said the WHO provided Iran with enough kits to test at least 110,000 people and "seven tons" of protective equipment and supplies, CNBC reported. More than 30 labs across the country were reported to have the capacity to run tests and at least 20 more were expected to be added, Brennan said.

Tehran, Iran, coronavirus, March 2020
An Iranian wearing masks walk past a mural displaying their national flag in Tehran on March 4, 2020. Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises. Getty Images

But Iranians reportedly remain concerned over the country's lack of medical equipment and its ability to fight the outbreak, which have been hampered by U.S. sanctions.

Last week, a spokesperson for the country's Foreign Ministry, Seyed Abbas Mousavi, accused the Trump administration of "putting Iranians' health at risk through economic and medical terrorism" and "committing crimes against humanity."

Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, noted: "I don't think they [the Iranian government] took it too seriously in the first week or two [of the outbreak]. I think the Iranian government was pretty much unprepared and the fact that Iranian officials were infected during the first week, it actually lowered their effectiveness in dealing with it," he told Al Jazeera's The Take podcast last week.

"There weren't enough tests [test kits in the country] to conduct large scale testing [for the virus]," he added.

"The issue is not in that the Iranian government is lying [about the latest virus figures]...the issue is of having the resources to come up with accurate numbers...how accurate these numbers are really depends on how much testing you're doing. There is a definite issue of not being able to import the necessary number of test kits.

"Iran isn't able to import even the simple things such as face masks," he added. Even though the U.S. has said "humanitarian goods such as medical equipment like masks are exempt from sanctions...the problem is the financial system and transportation industry [of Iran] are sanctioned, essentially that means you can't buy anything," Mousavi said.

Dr. Rasha Ahmadi, an ER (emergency room) doctor in Tehran, told The Take: "We still need technology, our patients don't just need the test kits and drugs."

"It's our chronic patients who are impacting the mortality rate during this pandemic. They need more aggressive equipment during their stay in ICU, equipment like ventilators, oxygen machines...because of the sanctions and the fact that Iranian bank accounts are blocked, it's impossible to buy this equipment," she added.

In March, Iranian state TV journalist Dr. Afruz Eslami cited a study by the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran which claimed 3.5 million people in Iran could die from the virus if no mitigation measures, such as travel restrictions and social distancing, were followed, AP reported.

The COVID-19 virus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 1.4 million people across at least 184 countries and regions. Over 83,400 have died while more than 308,000 have recovered from infection. The U.S. remains the epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 399,900 cases to date.

Newsweek has contacted Iran's Ministry of Health and Medical Education as well as WHO for further comment on the status of the virus outbreak in Iran.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of COVID-19 across the world.

A map showing confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world.
A map showing confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world. Statista

Data on COVID-19 cases is from Johns Hopkins University unless otherwise stated.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html)
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.