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WHO says coronavirus entered Iran ‘undetected,’ warns outbreak could be worse than is known

People wear masks after deaths and new confirmed cases revealed from the coronavirus in Tehran, Iran on February 21, 2020.

Anadolu Agency

The new coronavirus that is rapidly spreading around the world entered Iran “unseen and undetected,” world health officials said.

Iran, which had just two cases a week ago, confirmed 245 infections as of Thursday morning, but the outbreak could be even more widespread in the country than is currently known, said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program.

“This disease came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva on Thursday.

Kianoush Jahanpour, a spokesperson for Iran’s health ministry, on Thursday raised the country’s death toll due to the virus to 26. That means Iran has recorded the highest number of coronavirus fatalities outside China.

As epidemics emerge, he added, the health-care system often only picks up the most severe cases because those are the individuals who are likely to seek treatment. He said the broader spread of cases is likely due to surveillance difficulties, rather than the efficacy of Iran’s treatment and isolation protocols.

At the start of an epidemic, “you only see the severe end of the spectrum and then as you do more surveillance you find more mild cases,” he said. “I suspect this has more to do with surveillance and detection of cases at this point.”

Uncertainty in Iran

Iran’s health ministry has rejected claims from some local officials that the number of dead and infected is far higher than reported. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed concern on Tuesday that Tehran may be withholding “vital details” and urged all countries to “tell the truth about the coronavirus.”

The majority of Iran’s cases have been linked to Qom, a major religious destination for Shiite pilgrims 85 miles south of Tehran, Iran’s health ministry spokesman said on state television Tuesday. An official from Qom claimed Monday that 50 people had died in the city. Tehran quickly rejected the figure and denied hiding anything.

Since the virus arrived in Iran about a week ago, nearly all of Iran’s neighboring countries have shut their borders and suspended flights to Iran. Turkey, Armenia, Pakistan and Afghanistan have closed their borders, and Iraq says it has blocked travel to and from Iran. Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have suspended all flights to the Islamic Republic.

Iran hasn’t suspended flights from China, one of its top trading partners, despite nearly all of its Middle Eastern neighbors doing so.

‘Decisive point’

The focus of the outbreak has shifted from containing the outbreak in China to understanding how the virus is spreading across the world, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday. There are now 3,474 cases in 44 countries outside of China, Tedros said, and 54 deaths.

In addition to the epidemic in Iran, world health officials identified outbreaks in South Korea and Italy. South Korean health officials confirmed more than 1,700 cases of the virus in the country as of Wednesday, up from about 100 a week ago, according to WHO data. Italy, meanwhile, reported more than 400 confirmed cases nationwide as of Wednesday, up from three one week ago.

Tedros added that the number of new cases outside China has exceeded the number of new cases inside the country, where the virus emerged, for the past two days. In the past 24 hours, Tedros said seven countries reported their first cases of the virus: Brazil, Georgia, Greece, North Macedonia, Norway, Pakistan and Romania.

He also said that eight countries have not reported a new case in over two weeks: Belgium, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

“We’re at a decisive point,” he said Thursday. “The epidemics in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Italy and the Republic of Korea demonstrate what this virus is capable of.”

— CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn and Natasha Turak contributed to this report.