LONDON: An Iranian airline under US sanctions flew passengers infected with the coronavirus to Iraq and Lebanon and between Iran and China, fueling the spread of the virus across the Middle East.
Mahan Air, a private company linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), continued flying to China and elsewhere for weeks after Tehran officially barred flights to and from the country on Jan. 31.
The airline lied about these flights taking place, according to an investigation by the BBC. Arrival and departure data from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini and Chinese airports shows flights continued into March.
One flight on Feb. 6 carried 70 Iranian students back from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, before traveling on to Iraq the same day.
Mahan Air claimed it had ended all flights from China after an Iranian student newspaper criticized the Feb. 6 flight. But there were 55 more flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen until Feb. 23, data from commercial flight tracker Flightradar24 confirmed.
The BBC investigation established that Iraq’s and Lebanon’s first virus cases originated on Mahan Air flights.
Planes that went to Tehran from China also made onward travel within 24 hours to Barcelona, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul. Cabin crew raised concerns about their lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and containment measures on planes, but were silenced by the airline.
Mahan Air claims that it was sending humanitarian aid to China and that none of the flights were passenger flights. The data shows this was not the case, and they were confirmed as passenger flights.
Iran’s severe shortage of PPE and medical equipment throughout the coronavirus crisis also makes it extremely unlikely that they were supplying humanitarian aid to China.
Mahan Air is viewed worldwide as a rogue operation. The US designated it a supporter of terrorism in 2011 because of its support for the Quds Force of the IRGC. The airline is banned from Saudi airspace, and has been stripped of its landing rights in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.
As the battle to curb the spread of the virus continued on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia reported 1,595 new cases, taking the total to 30,251, and the death toll rose by nine to 200. Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 3.7 million people and killed more than 250,000.
In the UK, there was growing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the pandemic after Britain overtook Italy to report the highest death toll in Europe.
More than 7,000 deaths were recorded in the week to April 24, raising the total to 32,313.
Only the US, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities.
Nearly 8,000 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the same week, three times higher than a month previously. “These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition MP Liz Kendall.