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Iran’s coronavirus updates cannot ‘entirely’ be trusted, expert says

The fact that Iran reported deaths on the same day as its first coronavirus infections right before its parliamentary elections “can compel anyone” that there has been a cover-up, a senior research fellow said this week.

Iran reported its first two coronavirus-related deaths “out of (the) blue” on Feb. 19, Asif Shuja from the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute said. The country confirmed the cases earlier that day, and citizens went to the polls two days later.

“That is what can compel anyone that there has been cover-up, as far as infection is concerned,” Shuja told CNBC’s Capital Connection” on Monday.

The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Sunday told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble that the WHO has its “own mechanism” for checking facts and has not seen problems with Iran’s reported figures.

The coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019, but has since spread to nearly 60 countries. Iran has been one of the worst-hit countries apart from China. Reuters reported that 978 people have been infected and 54 have died.

An alternative theory to the possible cover-up is that authorities were too busy with the elections that they did not realize the virus had reached its borders, Shuja said, noting that senior Iranian officials tested positive.

“Once it came in the full force, there also, they had a lot of compulsion to restrict the information related to that because they still had two days for the election,” he said.

“That is why one can safely assume that the information that is coming out of Iran is not entirely to be trusted,” he added.

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Iranian sanitary workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine on February 25, 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus which reached Iran, where there were concerns the situation might be worse than officially acknowledged.

MEHDI MARIZAD | AFP | Getty Images

Shuja also said the high number of cases in Iran is a threat to the Middle East region because of the volume of people that usually travel to and from the country. 

While neighboring countries initially suspended flights to Iran when cases spiked, Shuja said the country has “very few options” in terms of importing goods or transporting people. 

“Iran is at the crossroads of (the) Middle East,” he said. “It is going to be a very big threat for the entire region, and the region must think about it very carefully.”

– CNBC’s Natasha Turak contributed to this report.