Iranian voters wear masks as they wait to cast their ballots during parliamentary elections at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP

TEHRAN – The Iranian city of Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims, has been flagged as a new danger point for the coronavirus, with at least one traveler taking it back with her to Lebanon.

“If I can say one thing, it is help Qom,” said Mohammadreza Ghadir, head of the city’s medical sciences university.

“We are on the frontlines, we need help,” he told state TV.

Iran’s health ministry said tests had been carried out on 785 suspected coronavirus cases since the outbreak began.

“Most of the cases are either Qom residents or have a history of coming and going from Qom to other cities,” its spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.

The Covid-19 outbreak in Iran first surfaced on Wednesday, when authorities said it claimed the lives of two elderly people in Qom.

They were the first confirmed deaths from the virus in the Middle East. Iran reported two more deaths on Friday.

The latest cases take to 28 the total number of confirmed infections in Iran.

All of those who lost their lives are believed to be Iranian citizens.

Neighboring Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from the Islamic republic.

The Iraqi health ministry announced that people in Iran were barred from entering the country “until further notice”.

Kuwait’s national carrier Kuwait Airways, meanwhile, announced it would suspend all flights to Iran.

The World Health Organization has expressed concern over the speed at which Covid-19 has spread in Iran, as well as it being exported from the Islamic republic to other countries including Lebanon.

“The concern is… that we have seen an increase in cases, a very rapid increase in a matter of a few days,” said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO’s global infectious hazard preparedness department.

“We are just wondering about also the potential of more exported cases in the coming days,” she added.

Ayatollah blames media

As a stated “preventive measure”, Iranian authorities ordered the closure of schools, universities and other cultural centers in 14 provinces across the country from Sunday.

They included the holy city of Qom and the capital Tehran, where Iranians had been encouraged to vote in parliamentary elections just 48 hours before.

Since it emerged in December, the new coronavirus has killed 2,345 people in China, the epicenter of the epidemic, and 17 elsewhere in the world.

Based on official figures, nearly 18% of those infected with the new coronavirus in Iran have died, compared with little more than 3% in China.

Online retailer Digikala – Iran’s equivalent of Amazon – said on Friday it had sold 75,000 masks within 36 hours.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused foreign media on Sunday of trying to use the deadly outbreak in Iran to “discourage” people from voting in a general election.

“This negative propaganda began a few months ago and grew larger approaching the election and in the past two days, under the pretext of an illness and a virus, their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting,” said Khamenei.

A low turnout had already been expected after a conservative-dominated electoral watchdog disqualified thousands of candidates, most of them moderates and reformists, putting hardliners at an advantage.

State media said the deadly virus had failed to dampen “the revolutionary zeal of Qom’s people” to turn out to vote.