Iran on Monday said that 12 people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a much higher death toll by a lawmaker from the city of Qom who had claimed the death toll to be over 59.
Qom has been at the epicenter of the virus in the country.
The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government’s transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak.
Five neighboring countries reported their first cases of the virus, with those infected all having links to Iran, including direct travel from a city where authorities have not even reported a confirmed case.
Iran’s Health Ministry said the total number of infections have risen to 61 while deaths stood at 12. But a lawmaker from Qom, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, was quoted by the semi-official ILNA news agency as saying that the death toll was 50.
Even with the lower toll of 12, the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.
Farahani, the lawmaker, said the 50 deaths in Qom date back to Feb. 13. Iran first officially reported cases of the virus and its first deaths on Feb. 19.
He did not provide supporting evidence but said more than 250 people are quarantined in Qom.
“I think the performance of the administration in controlling the virus has not been successful,” Farahani said, referring to the government of President Hassan Rouhani. His comments represent the most public criticism levied yet against the government for its handling of the virus, which originated in China in December.
“None of the nurses have access to proper protective gear,” Farahani said, adding that some health care specialists had left the city. “So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront corona by the administration.”
He spoke following a session in parliament in Tehran. His comments, first published by ILNA, were later carried by other news agencies in Iran.
Health Ministry spokesman Iraj Harirchi rejected the lawmaker’s comments, but said about 900 other suspected cases are being tested.
“No one is qualified to discuss this sort of news at all,” Harirchi said, adding that lawmakers have no access to coronavirus statistics and could be mixing figures on deaths related to other diseases like the flu with the new virus.
Mohammad Tavakoli, a representative of the health minister in Qom, said 320 people suspected to have the infection have been hospitalized, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported. He added that 21 people who had been infected had recovered and were released from hospitals.
The virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness, has infected more than 79,000 people globally, and caused more than 2,600 deaths, most of them in China.
The outbreak of the virus in Iran comes as its economy buckles under pressure from U.S. economic sanctions. The virus threatens to isolate Iran even further as several countries began halting flights and barring Iranians from entry.
(with inputs from Associated Press)