750 Kuwaitis will be brought home from Iran as coronavirus leads to multiple deaths

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iran's health ministry has announced that 8 people have died and 43 have been infected from the Wuhan Coronavirus.

The statement comes after Kuwait announced it will be bringing back 750 citizens from Iran after the first coronavirus-related deaths were declared last week in the country.

The first flight landed in Kuwait on Saturday morning carrying 130 people. Minister of Health Dr Basel Al Sabah said all passengers were free of the virus and "in good health and high spirits".

In Lebanon, there has been a public outcry over the failure to halt flights from Iran after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in a Lebanese woman, 45, who travelled from the Iranian city of Qom.

“We have made contact with Iranian authorities who assured us that all necessary measures will be taken before a new flight arrives from Iran on Monday. The same measures will be taken for all flights arriving from coronavirus-infected countries,” Lebanon's health minister Hassan Hamad said, according to local news outlet Naharnet.

On Saturday, he said 11 people who returned from Iran and were suspected of carrying the virus tested negative, including two who arrived on the flight from Qom.

Lebanese citizens have used social media to express their outrage after Mr Hamad said the next flight from Iran would be allowed to land.

The governor of Markazi province, Ali Aghazadeh, told the official IRNA news agency that tests conducted on a patient who recently died in the central city of Arak were positive for the virus.

Mr Aghazadeh said the person also suffered from a heart problem.

Earlier on Saturday, health authorities reported a fifth death from coronavirus and said the patient was one of 10 new confirmed cases in Iran.

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

The outbreak in Iran first surfaced on Wednesday, when authorities said Covid-19, another name of the virus, claimed the lives of two elderly people in Qom, a Shiite holy city south of Tehran.

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

Based on official figures, about 18 per cent of those infected with the coronavirus in Iran have died, compared with little more than 3 per cent in China.

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Dutch passengers from the Westerdam cruise ship arrive home. EPA

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A patient suspected of carrying the new coronavirus, named COVID-19, arrives at Kyungpook National University Hospital in Daegu, South Korea. EPA

As a "preventive measure", Iranian authorities ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres in 14 provinces across the country from Sunday, state TV reported.

They provinces are Qom, Markazi, Gilan, Ardabil, Kermanshah, Qazvin, Zanjan, Mazandaran, Golestan, Hamedan, Alborz, Semnan, Kurdistan and Tehran.

Iran also announced "all art and cinema events in halls across the country have been cancelled until the end of the week" to stop the spread of infections.

"We are on the front lines, we need help," Mohammadreza Ghadir, the head of Qom's medical sciences university, said on state TV.

"If I can say one thing, it is help Qom."

The World Health Organisation expressed concern about the speed Covid-19 has spread in Iran, as well as the possibility of the virus being exported to countries such as 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."

The Iranian outbreak began in the lead-up to a parliamentary election on Friday.

State media said the deadly virus failed to dampen "the revolutionary zeal of Qom's people" to turn out to vote.

Iranians have been snapping up surgical face masks in a bid to avoid catching the virus.

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

It said it was not claiming a commission on its mask sales, amid concerns that demand was causing prices to skyrocket on the black market.

"We stand against the unusual price increase," Digikala tweeted.

"We stand alongside our dear suppliers and by providing fresh supplies, we hope we can meet a part of the country's demand."

The Iranian health ministry said tests were 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," a ministry spokesman said.

Iran has yet to confirm the origin of the outbreak, but one official speculated it was brought in by Chinese workers.

"The coronavirus epidemic has started in the country," IRNA quoted health ministry official Minoo Mohraz as saying.

"Since those infected in Qom had no contact with the Chinese … the source is probably Chinese workers who work in Qom and have travelled to China."

But she did not provide any evidence to support her claim and it has not been reported elsewhere in Iranian media.

All of those who died are believed to be Iranian citizens.

Qom is a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims, attracting scholars from across Iran and beyond.

After the announcement of the first two deaths in Iran, Iraq barred travel to and from its neighbour.

The Iraqi health ministry announced that people in Iran would not be allowed to enter the country "until further notice".

Meanwhile, South Korea’s president has put his nation on its highest alert for infectious diseases, saying Sunday that officials should take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight the outbreak of the new virus in the country.

President Moon Jae-in made the comments as authorities reported 123 more cases, raising the country’s total to 556, with five deaths.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic row erupted after Israel turned back a South Korean airliner, underscoring fear and tensions over the fast-spreading outbreak.

In Italy, the number of cases the Lombardy region has risen to 89, bringing the country's total to more than 100.

Updated: February 23, 2020 02:13 PM

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