Iran reports 97 new virus deaths, taking total to 611

Tehran (AFP) –


Iran said on Saturday that the novel coronavirus has claimed 97 more lives, raising the country's total to 611, as the number of confirmed cases jumped again.

Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said that "1,365 fresh cases have been added to the number of confirmed infections in the past 24 hours", bringing the total to 12,729.

Jahanpour told a televised news conference that more than 4,300 of those with confirmed infections had recovered so far.

Tehran province had the highest number of new cases with 347, followed by Isfahan with 155 and the northern region of Alborz with 134.

"Naturally, the number of confirmed cases will increase" even more as Iran steps up its laboratory sampling and tests, he said.

The outbreak in Iran is one of the deadliest outside of China, where the disease originated.

But Tehran's markets were still crowded despite calls for people to stay at home, with many shopping ahead of the country's New Year holidays which start on March 20.

The ministry said Friday that the average age of those who died was 67. The youngest was a three-year-old leukaemia sufferer and the oldest 91.

Four times as many men as women died from the novel coronavirus.

But in some of Iran's provinces alcohol poisoning was killing even more people than the virus.

At least 92 have died from drinking methanol after rumours circulated that it can help to cure or protect from the virus, and the number has been on the rise for the past few days.

- 'Big nightmare' -

Iran is also preparing for its traditional fire festival, or Chaharshanbe Soori, held annually on the last Wednesday evening before the spring holiday of Nowrouz.

Iranians traditionally jump over fires and light fireworks to celebrate the event, with many suffering burns and being hospitalised.

The interior ministry has ordered firefighters and medical services to be on the alert, but the head of a hospital specialising in the treatment of burns suggested the government ban the ceremony amid the virus outbreak.

"People suffering burns while the coronavirus is out there is a big nightmare," Mostafa Dehmardei, head of Tehran's Motahari hospital, told semi-official news agency ISNA.

Several politicians and officials, both sitting and former, have been infected with the new coronavirus, and some have died from the illness.

The latest suspected case of infection was Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy.

Iran's official coronavirus committee also held its meeting chaired by President Hassan Rouhani on Friday via videoconference.

Pictures of the meeting that have been released show ministers with masks tuning in from their offices.

The foreign ministry on Friday thanked other countries for sending aid in the form of cash and medical equipment to combat the outbreak.

The government and people of Iran would "never forget their friends" at a time of hardship, spokesman Abbas Mousavi tweeted.

He thanked Azerbaijan, Britain, China, France, Germany, Japan, Qatar, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran said Thursday that it has sought immediate financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund to help it fight the virus, in what would be its first such loan in decades.