In a video conference with reporters on Wednesday, Iran's Deputy Health Minister said coronavirus spread in Qom by Chinese workers and students, and in Gilan by Iranian students coming back from Wuhan.
Alireza Raeesi said an epidemiology team has been studying the source of the outbreak in Iran since the first cases surfaced in Qom. "The spread of the disease was clearly in connection with the Chinese nationals living in the said province. There were a number of Chinese workers as well as some Chinese students in Qom," he said.
The "students" that Raeesi referred to were Chinese students of theology studying in Al-Mustafa International University of Qom, a state-funded university-style Shiite seminary with branches in many countries. Many of the Chinese students studying in Qom were apparently Sunni Uyghurs.
The first to point out the role of Chinese theology students in spreading the coronavirus was the head of Medical Sciences University of Mashhad. Apparently, under pressure from authorities and clerics who did not want the disease to be associated with their activities, the official had to retract his statement.
Later, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, a Sunni theologian and spiritual leader of Iran's Sunni community, in a video message charged that the Chinese students of Al-Mustafa University had spread the virus in Iran. Abdolhamid and many others believe that the university-seminary has an aggressive propaganda agenda against Sunnis.
The Health Ministry Deputy also said despite the earlier theories of Qom being the original single epicenter of the outbreak, there is now evidence that the virus spread independently from Qom and Gilan Province.
According to Raeesi the virus may have been transferred to Gilan by Iranian students who were studying in China and returned home prior to the lockdown on the city of Wuhan repatriation of Iranians from the city. Iran evacuated 56 Iranian nationals from Wuhan on February 5 and quarantined them for two weeks, after which all of them tested negative for the virus.