Coronavirus: Middle East becoming latest battleground against Covid-19, says top health expert

John Ashton said there may be 'gross under-reporting' of the number of cases by Iran

The Middle East has become the latest battleground in the war against the global spread of coronavirus, according to a top public health expert.

Professor John Ashton said Iran has emerged as a “real concern” as confirmed cases and deaths soared in recent days.

On Wednesday, the number of cases in the Middle East approached 200, including at least 139 in Iran.

“The general view is [the viral outbreak in Iran] has probably been going on for some time, and there is probably pretty gross under reporting of the cases,” said Prof Ashton, a former head of the UK's Faculty of Health who is advising Bahrain's crown prince on the outbreak.

Large movements of people in the region, including pilgrims travelling to religious sites, poses a significant challenge, he said.

“There is a whole issue now about whether it is possible to stop religious tourism for the duration of this outbreak," Prof Ashton told Britain's Channel 4 News.

"I think it’s something which looks as though it may well be possible, but it has to come from religious leaders."

The Middle East is fast becoming a second virus hot spot outside of Asia, he said.

“It looks as though the Middle East is becoming similar to what’s gone on over the last two or three months in the Far East,” said Prof Ashton.

He also claimed the World Health Organisation was “mincing its words” over whether the outbreak has become a pandemic.

“These kind of situations are very political. And when you look at the criteria for a pandemic, this is something that is a novel virus," he said.

"It’s now worldwide. It requires a coordinated, collaborative response from countries around the world.

"This, by all intents and purposes, is a pandemic."

Bahrain faces the problem of how to manage “several thousand” of its citizens who are currently in Iran, and other affected areas.

“That’s going to have to be handled when they return,” said Mr Ashton.

Bahrain's first case involved a school bus driver who fell ill days after returning from Iran. Bahrain initially shut two schools and a nursery where the bus driver picked up children on Sunday, before extending the closure to all schools, nurseries, universities, training centres and community centres for two weeks from Wednesday.

Many of Bahrain's -19 patients travelled from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah, prompting Bahrain's civil aviation authority to suspend all flights arriving from the emirates for 48 hours early on Tuesday. The UAE has suspended all flights to Iran.