DUBAI, GENEVA: The rapid spread of coronavirus raised fears of a pandemic on Friday, with five countries reporting their first cases, the World Health Organization (WHO)warning it could spread worldwide and Switzerland canceling the giant Geneva car show.
“The outbreak is getting bigger,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a news briefing in Geneva.
“The scenario of the coronavirus reaching multiple countries, if not all countries around the world, is something we have been looking at and warning against since quite a while.”
The outbreak of the new virus in Iran has been dramatic — the head of Iran’s task force to stop the illness, known as COVID-19, was seen coughing, sweating and wheezing across televised interviews before acknowledging he was infected. Then days later, a visibly pale official sat only meters away from President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders before she too reportedly came down with the virus.
Iran’s success — or failure — in combating in the virus will have an impact far beyond the country’s 80 million people as the majority of cases in the Mideast now link back to Iran.
“All organizations are trying their best to combat this virus,” Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.
On Friday, Jahanpour again reported a huge spike in cases, saying there were now 388 confirmed coronavirus cases in Iran and 34 deaths. In brief remarks from Tehran, he cautioned the number of cases would likely further spike as Iran now has 15 laboratories testing samples.
In Tehran and other cities, authorities canceled Friday prayer services to limit crowds. In the capital, Radio Tehran that typically carries the prayer played only traditional Iranian music. Universities are to remain closed another week.
Questions still remain over Iran’s count. Experts, including at the WHO, worry the Islamic republic may be underreporting the number of cases in the country.
There are almost 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Germany, a spokeswoman for the Health Ministry said on Friday, adding that number included people who were now healthy again.
Asked how many confirmed cases of coronavirus in Germany there were, she said: “At the moment in Germany we have almost 60 but it’s a very dynamic situation, as we keep saying.”
Lebanon announced on Friday it would bar entry to nonresident foreigners from the four countries most affected by the coronavirus outbreak, a day after announcing its third case.
The Middle Eastern country will deny entry to people arriving from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, the state news agency reported, without saying when the measure would come into effect.
All airlines operating flights to Beirut have been notified of the ban, which does not affect Lebanese citizens or foreigners holding a residency permit, the agency added.
Lebanon’s Health Ministry on Thursday confirmed another coronavirus case. All three individuals infected — two Lebanese and an Iranian — arrived recently from Iran, the worst-hit country in the region. Despite government efforts to reassure the Lebanese, videos have circulated on social media denouncing what users say are insufficient screenings for the virus at Beirut’s international airport.
Nigerian authorities on Friday reported the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus in sub-Saharan Africa as the outbreak spread to a region with some of the world’s weakest health systems.
The health commissioner for Lagos, Africa’s largest city with more than 20 million people, said an Italian citizen who entered Nigeria on Tuesday from Milan on a business trip fell ill the next day. Commissioner Akin Abayomi said the man was clinically stable with no serious symptoms.
Abayomi said officials were working to identify all of the man’s contacts since he arrived in Nigeria. Lagos state early this month advised people arriving from virus-affected areas to observe 14 days of self-quarantine while monitoring for any symptoms. Nigerian health officials have been strengthening measures to ensure that any outbreak in Lagos is contained quickly, Abayomi said in a statement.
He urged Lagos residents to take measures such as keeping their distance from people who are coughing and washing their hands regularly.
Cases of the virus were confirmed in Egypt and Algeria in north Africa in recent days. Until then, some global health experts had expressed surprise that no cases had been reported in Africa.
It was concerns about the virus spreading to countries with weaker health systems that led the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.
Nigeria is one of 13 African countries that WHO classified as high priority in this outbreak because of direct links to China or a high number of visitors from there.
On Thursday, word spread that one of Iran’s many vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had contracted the virus. Ebtekar, 59, is better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis.
Ebtekar on Wednesday attended a Cabinet meeting chaired by Rouhani, 71. Other top officials, most in their late 50s and 60s, sat within several meters (feet) from her as well. Jahanpour, the Health Ministry spokesman, said the average age of those killed by the virus and the illness it brings is over 60.
State media has not said what measures those attending the meeting with Ebtekar were now taking. However, the concern about the virus’ spread among Iran’s elite has reached into Austria, where Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg tested negative for it after a recent trip to Tehran.
Worries persist over Shiite shrines remaining open in the country. Saudi Arabia on Thursday took the unprecedented decision to close off the holiest sites in Islam to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Some Iranian clerics also have offered advice with no basis in science, like Sheikh Abbas Tabrizian in Qom who told followers to give themselves a suppository of essential oils to ward off the virus.
Elsewhere, a major cycling race in the United Arab Emirates was canceled early Friday after two Italians tested positive for the new virus, setting off a quarantine that also ensnared four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome of Britain. That pushed the overall number of confirmed cases to 21 in the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.
In Cairo, authorities allowed a plane carrying 114 Chinese tourists into Egypt despite EgyptAir halting flights to China amid the outbreak. The tourists showed no symptoms of the virus and will be monitored during their weeklong vacation, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Lebanon has flights and barred citizens of China, Iran, Italy and South Korea from visiting the country, though Lebanese citizens and residents will be allowed back in. Qatar separately flew home its citizens from Iran and put them in a 14-day quarantine.
The Iran government’s slow response and the unrelenting pressure Iranians face, especially as the country’s rial currency this week hit its lowest value in a year against the US dollar, has seen many Iranians turn to dark humor. Jokes spread fast across social media, including one saying a government that previously cracked down on demonstrators now will lock up the virus.
Then come the videos. Iraj Harirchi, who led Iran’s coronavirus task force, sweated at the podium during a news conference and then later coughed all over the set of a state TV interview program, its female host looking down and away.
“I came from a cold place,” Harirchi said, attempting to joke before bringing the crook of his arm to his face. “I made a mistake. I should cover my mouth like this.”
Soon afterward, Harirchi acknowledged testing positive for the virus.