Coronavirus death toll in Iran 'three times higher than reported'

Doubts cast over official figures after government documents leaked

An Iranian medic treats a patient infected with the COVID-19 virus at a hospital in Tehran on March 1, 2020. - A plane carrying UN medical experts and aid touched down on March 2, 2020, in Iran on a mission to help it tackle the world's second-deadliest outbreak of coronavirus as European powers said they would send further help. (Photo by KOOSHA MAHSHID FALAHI / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===

The Tehran regime has been accused of a cover-up for failing to report the true scale of the devastation wrought by coronavirus in Iran after leaked data showed that deaths were almost triple the number officially reported.

The government’s own figures put Covid-19 deaths at 42,000 compared to 14,405 reported by the health ministry up to July 20, according to an investigation by the BBC’s Persian service.

It found that the first coronavirus death in Iran occurred on January 22, a full month before the first official fatality was reported.

Questions will be raised in Iran given that the regime has previously been accused of cover-ups, including the initial denial that it shot down a Ukraine passenger jet in January with the loss of 176 lives.

The health ministry has allegedly been under pressure from Iranian intelligence services to adjust the figures, according to doctors who spoke to the BBC.

“Those who brought the country to this point don't pay the price,” one doctor said. “It is the poor people of the country and my poor patients who pay the price with their lives.”

The detailed data, which was leaked via an anonymous source, includes details of daily hospital admissions with names, age, gender, symptoms and date and time spent in hospital.

Currently, Iran has 309,000 official cases of Covid-19 infections, but the two-week-old figures obtained by the BBC show 451,024.

If accurate, they indicate that Iran has the fifth highest number of deaths in the world and sixth highest cases of infections, from a population of 84 million. By comparison, Britain has suffered 46,000 deaths from 304,000 infections.

The large number of infections highlights the risks taken by Iranian officials, religious leaders and businessmen who continued to travel to China early in the year despite the spread of the virus there.

Along with Italy, which also had strong business links with China, Iran is seen as one of the "super-spreader" countries, with travellers infecting neighbouring countries, including Iraq. There has also been long-held suspicion that Iran has not reported the full extent of its epidemic.

Irregularities in Covid-19 death reporting

Research by The National in May showed that despite having the highest number of deaths in the world on lockdown day – 1,433 – and the third highest delay of 28 days from first Covid-19 death to lockdown, Iran's death rate was similar to low infection countries. It has had one death per 12,000 people which was similar to the death rate in Germany, where there were half the number of infections.

While it is accepted that worldwide there is an under-reporting of Covid deaths, irregularities in Iran have been seen between national and regional levels, with some local authorities speaking out against the lower official numbers.

The leaked information shows that the Iranian authorities have given far lower daily numbers despite having the true record of all deaths. The whistleblower said that the data had been shared with the BBC to “shed light on truth” and to end “political games” over the epidemic.

Whilst the initial lockdown in March was strict, the measures were relaxed in May. Infections and deaths subsequently rose; Iran has been suffering a consistently high number of infections with a daily average of 2,500 for the past six weeks.

According to the official figures, Tehran has the highest death count with 8,120 followed by Qom, which was the epicentre of the infection, with 1,419 deaths.

The health ministry said its official reporting to the World Health Organisation on Covid death and infections was “transparent” and “far from any deviations”.