Coronavirus: Iran reports three new cases after two deaths

Middle East countries move to restrict travel to and from Iran amid virus fears

epa08231820 A member of medical team checks the body temperature of an Iraqi woman upon her arrival at Shalamcheh border crossing with Iran, east of Basra city, 500 km southern Iraq on 20 February 2020. Iraqi authorites have taken action to screen those arriving at the airports and border crossings with Iran, while the Iraqi airlines canceled all flights to Iran, following the cases of the deadly Covid-19 Coronavirus diagnosed in iran.  EPA/HAIDER AL-ASSADEE
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Iran on Thursday confirmed three new coronavirus cases after the deaths of two elderly men, as Iraq banned travel to and from its neighbour.

The pair who died were elderly Iranian citizens in the city of Qom. They were the first confirmed deaths from the Covid-19 virus in the Middle East.

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpour told AFP that two of the new cases were also in Qom, and the other was in Arak, south of the city.

"In total there were five cases of which two have been fatal," Mr Jahanpour said.

Qom is a centre for Islamic studies and tourists, attracting scholars from Iran and beyond. But a government official said the two first patients had not left Iran.

Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from Iran, with Baghdad's Health Ministry announcing people in Iran were barred from entering the country "until further notice".

A senior official said border crossings with Iran were closed and only returning Iraqis were allowed to pass through.

They will be examined and, if necessary, placed in quarantine for 14 days, the Health Ministry said.

The closure followed a backlash against the announcement by the Interior Ministry on Wednesday of visa waivers for Iranians wishing to travel to Iraq.

Iraqis took to social media using the hashtag "close the border", and local officials called for a ban on the entry of goods and people through border crossings with Iran.

Iraqi airports are already screening travellers for the virus and national carrier Iraqi Airways has suspended flights to Iran.

Each year, millions of Iranian pilgrims visit Shiite sites in Iraq, providing the state with significant revenue.

Kuwait Airways became the second national carrier to suspend all flights to Iran starting on Thursday, on the advice of the Kuwaiti Health Ministry and civil aviation authority.

Earlier on Thursday, Iran government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Tehran would set up a top-level body of government and defence officials to fight the virus' spread, the state news agency Irna reported.

"We, however, need global action by authorities and the co-operation of all citizens," Mr Rabiei said on Twitter.

The deaths in Iran were reported by local media on Wednesday, hours after Tehran said there were two cases in the country.

Several people on social media accused the government of staying quiet to prevent panic before Friday's parliamentary elections.

"Just four hours separated the announcement that two compatriots were infected and their deaths," journalist Javad Heydarian tweeted.

"This signifies that the virus had been around for some days but they hid the truth."

Public confidence in government pronouncements has plunged since the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane on January 8, which killed 176 people.

The government initially denied responsibility but later admitted the plane had been shot down due to "human error", and blamed a jittery missile operator.

The Culture Ministry has asked local media to publish only official information from government officials and criticised what it claimed was a proliferation of fake news on social media about the virus.

Since December, the novel coronavirus has killed 2,118 people in China, excluding Hong Kong and Macau.

Elsewhere in the world, the virus has killed 11 people and spread across about 25 countries.