IranWire's Shahed Alavi gives an account of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, and how the government dealt with the unfolding crisis, starting with reports of the first cases through to the staggering escalation of illness across the country — a situation the government failed to control for a range of reasons.
Alavi has updated this chronicle on a regular basis.
A review of statements from and actions by Islamic Republic officials in connection with the coronavirus epidemic since the first day that China officially announced the outbreak reveal a collection of misleading disinformation combined with wrong and highly-damaging measures. Although through reviewing this collection one can glean insight into the many reasons behind the early secrecy and denials by Iranian officials, it is not clear whether they had any understanding of the disastrous consequences of their decisions at the time.
These misleading pieces of information are plentiful, and appear in official statistics. From Wednesday, February 8, when health official Ghasem Jan-Babaei confirmed that two patients in Qom had tested positive for coronavirus, through to Tuesday, March 24, when the government announced 24,811 cases of infection and 1,934 deaths from coronavirus, Iranian officials have made contradictory announcements about the spread of the virus and its fatalities.
One significant point is that, at the time of the publication of this report, Iranian officials have refused to release figures for COVID-19 deaths in the provinces of Tehran and Qom, probably because of the high rate of mortalities.
This report reviews how Iranian officials have dealt with the coronavirus epidemic from December 31 2019, the day that China announced that it had identified a new virus, to March 25, the sixth day of the new Iranian calendar year, the day that the step-by-step policy of quarantines started in Iran.
December 31, 2019:
China Notifies World Health Organization About the Outbreak
On this day, Chinese officials who had encountered a rash of an unknown disease since early December 2019, officially notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the discovery of a new virus.
January 1, 2020:
Health Ministry Claims to Have Contained Flu Outbreak
Many media outlets around the world published reports about the new virus in China.
In Iran, the state-run Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) published the first Persian-language report about the new virus, informing its readers of a spread of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan that had infected more than 24 people.
On the same day, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, announced that that Iran had contained an influenza outbreak, that the number of infections and deaths from influenza had subsided and that the spread of the flu was now less than 10 percent of what it had been in previous weeks.
China officially notified the World Health Organization that it has identified the new virus, COVID-19.
Three days after China’s announcement that it had identified the coronavirus, the Beijing office of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) prepared and published a report based on information that was a week old. The report failed to mention both China’s identification of the new virus and the WHO proclamation about it.
Iran Learns About the Virus
China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus, allowing the development of test kits to begin. On the same day, WHO issued a statement describing the symptoms associated with the new coronavirus, including fever, shortness of breath and the inflammation of both lungs.
One of Iran's several deputy health ministers Alireza Raeesi said that the statement by the World Health Organization had been translated on the same day and had been sent to all universities, hospitals and institutions in Iran that are involved in healthcare. In other words, the Iranian healthcare system and medical centers must have known about the symptoms of the new disease at least from January 12.
The first case of coronavirus infection outside China was confirmed in Thailand.
With the detection of a coronavirus case in Japan, the second outside China, Chinese health officials announced for the first time that they could not rule out person-to-person spread of the new virus.
Chinese officials warned with more certainty the coronavirus could be contagious (video). A virology institute in Germany reported that it had developed the first diagnostic test kit for the new virus and had started sending samples to companies that had requested them.
The World Health Organization added a dry cough to the list of coronavirus symptoms. On the same day, ISNA reportedthe second coronavirus death in China and, quoting the British newspaper the Guardian, reported that WHO has warned that the virus could turn into a pandemic.
As more cases of coronavirus infections were found in China, the country’s health officials confirmed that that the new coronavirus is contagious and could be transferred from human to human. Authorities around the globe, including in the United States and many Asian countries, stepped up screening of travelers from Wuhan.
South Korea confirmed its first coronavirus case. In the following days and weeks, coronavirus gradually spread to other countries as well.
The Virus Spreads, but Iran Takes no Precautions
The United States announced its first confirmed coronavirus case and the World Health Organization called for an emergency meeting to determine whether the coronavirus outbreak should be declared as a global health emergency.
On the same day, Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reporting the death of the fourth Chinese citizens from coronavirus, reported that a number of Asian countries, the US and Austria had put health measures in place to examine travelers from Wuhan. In Iran, however, no preventive measures were taken and health officials remained silent — more than three weeks after China officially announced the outbreak of a new, unknown virus, two weeks after it identified COVID-19 and following two statements by the World Health Organization.
Authorities Say Screening is Underway
The first reaction by an Iranian health official came on January 22, 24 days after China identified a new virus. Hossein Erfani, head of the Health Ministry’s Contagious Diseases Department, told IRNA that no cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed in Iran but he added that that the ministry’s screening team was stationed at Imam Khomeini Airport and that all travelers coming from China were being carefully monitored and diagnosed, explaining that if a traveler has a fever or has suspected symptoms that person would be referred to the hospital for more detailed examinations and tests.
Following this official response, Iranian health officials changed their attitude toward coronavirus. Almost every day since then, either a health official has given an interview about coronavirus or the Health Ministry has issued a statement on the subject.
It appears that this sudden change came about because the Health Ministry’s officials learned that some patients at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital were showing symptoms of coronavirus and a number of them had died after common medicines for treating influenza had proved to be ineffective.
Mohammad Mehdi Gouya, director of the Health Ministry’s Center for Diseases Control, said that travelers from China were being screened at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran for coronavirus symptoms. “The Germans have produced the test kit for this disease and the Health Ministry has taken action to acquire the coronavirus test kits,” he reported. "They are ready to cope with every aspect of this disease.”
The First Guidelines
The first guidelines for reducing the risk of contamination by coronavirus were published. The guidelines emphasized washing hands for at least 20 seconds, carrying and using hand sanitizers and avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Iranian media also reported on these guidelines.
In its first statement about coronavirus, the Iranian Health Ministry announced that no suspected cases of coronavirus had been detected in Iran. “At all border terminals, especially at airports and international seaports, healthcare stations with teams of medical specialists…are active,” said the statement. “They have the necessary equipment to screen suspect cases entering the country.”
In a TV interview, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said that Iran was monitoring the situation in China carefully and was in close contact with the World Health Organization. He claimed that labs in Iran “have the necessary equipment for diagnosis and care.”
The Health Ministry’s Civil Defense Committee met on this day to pursue efforts for acquiring coronavirus test kits and the company Fardavar Azma Iranian, a representative of the Swiss company Roche, by now one of the biggest manufacturers of coronavirus test kits, informed the Ministry of Health that it was ready to sell it test kits.
Hossein Erfani, head of the health ministry’s Contagious Diseases Department, reported that Iran had taken action to import test kits from Germany and that the kits would reach Iran in the coming days.
Chinese health officials announced that people infected with coronavirus might have an incubation period of up to 14 days, during which they show no symptoms, meaning that the patients may not know that they have the infection, but will still be able to spread it.
Tests Arrive in Iran
The health ministry announced that coronavirus test kits had arrived in Iran from Germany and, in the coming days, Iran would import more kits to build a “strategic reserve.”
On the same day, Iranian health minister Saeed Namaki said that his ministry had asked the foreign ministry to cancel visas issued to Chinese nationals. Of course, the health minister seemed to be unaware that exactly seven months earlier Iran had unilaterally lifted the requirement that Chinese nationals had to obtain visas to visit and travel to Iran.
Health Ministry Officials Insist "Immediate" Precautions Have Been Taken
Pir Hossein Kolivand, the head of the health ministry’s National Emergencies Organization, reported that rapid-response teams had been set up in Tehran and other metropolitan areas to deal with coronavirus and to investigate suspected cases.
At the same time, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, said that the test results for a number of suspected cases definitely showed that the patients had not been infected with coronavirus.
In a radio interview, Iraj Harirchi, another deputy health minister, claimed that by taking “immediate action,” Iran had prevented coronavirus from spreading to the country. “People should not be worried,” he said. “They can take the usual precautions they take to prevent getting infected with ailments such as the common cold and influenza.”
These statements from health officials emerged despite the fact that at the time, according to the director of the intensive care unit at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital, patients in the hospital with symptoms of coronavirus were dying every day. The hospital had no test kits to verify the nature of the disease.
"No Cases in Iran"
With coronavirus cases in China rising to more than 9,000 and the number of the dead to 213, and with at least 118 confirmed cases in 22 other countries, most countries stopped flights to and from China. But flights between Iran and China continued as normal.
On the same day, in a statement, the Iranian embassy in China claimed that no Iranian living in China, including 80 people in Wuhan, were infected with coronavirus and that the embassy was trying to arrange for their return to Iran.
In Iran, Kianoush Jahanpour, the director of the health ministry’s public relations, announced that no cases of coronavirus infection had been found in Iran and that “all necessary facilities and equipment for identifying cases of suspected infection by this virus exist in the country.” He asked people to go for coronavirus testing if they show symptoms including a fever and severe respiratory problems such as coughing.
Jahanpour’s claim and his call for testing of “suspected” cases came at a time when fatalities from similar symptoms were continuing at Qom’s Kamkar Hospital.
On the same day, Reza Jafarzadeh, the spokesman for Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, announced that flights to China were continuing, but that they were being “controlled,” adding that the organization had no plans to suspend flights to China.
Authorities Acknowledge Deaths in Qom
The World Health Organization, pointing to the rapid spread of coronavirus in various countries, declared an international health emergency.
By this time, as the website Iran International reported, both the Iranian Supreme National Security Council and the Ministry of Health were aware that a number of patients with coronavirus symptoms had died in Qom, information that had come from a deputy health minister who had personally visited Qom and had submitted his report to the ministry. Iranian leaders made the decision to keep this information hidden from the public.
Nevertheless, on the same day, Kianoush Jahanpour, director of the health ministry’s public relations, claimed that “all entry ports — air, ground and sea — are covered by preventive measures and screening and suspected coronavirus cases will be handled according to the guidelines.” He also said that Mohammad Hossein Sumi, president of the Medical School of Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan, reported that two Chinese women, suspected of contracting the coronavirus infection, had been hospitalized in the city. According to him, these two women, aged 36 and 37, had arrived in the Republic of Azerbaijan on January 25 and had crossed into Iran on January 29 and were both in a stable condition.
Flights Between Iran and China to be Halted
Health ministry official Saeed Namaki asked First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to stop flights between Iran and China. This request was approved in a cabinet emergency, chaired by Jahangiri, and it was decided that the flights would be suspended for a limited period. The order went out the same day — but it was never implemented.
The health ministry most likely had an inkling that the measure would not be carried out so it made another, milder request. Alireza Raeesi, a deputy health minister, announced that his ministry had sent a letter to the government, asking for Chinese tourists to be banned from visiting Iran and limiting work-related travel from the country.
Read Iran’s coronavirus chronology for February 2020