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Rise In Coronavirus Cases In Iran, Elsewhere Triggers Pandemic Fears

Women wearing protective masks in downtown Tehran.
Women wearing protective masks in downtown Tehran.

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic, or global outbreak, are growing as countries including Iran, Italy, and South Korea are battling to contain the spread of the disease that has already killed around 2,600 people in China.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman on February 24 reported their first cases of the COVID-19 virus -- all involving people who had come from Iran, which has recorded the highest death toll outside the disease's epicenter in China.

The semiofficial ILNA news agency reported that 50 people had died from the virus in the central city of Qom, but Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi rejected that report, telling a news conference that the total number of confirmed cases now stood at 61, including 12 deaths.

However, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against using the word "pandemic," saying it did not fit the facts.

"We must focus on containment while preparing for a potential pandemic," he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the world was not threatened by an uncontained spread or large-scale deaths.

The epidemic in China peaked between January 23 and February 2 and has been declining since, the WHO said.

Meanwhile, the Afghan minister of public health, Ferozuddin Feroz, told a press conference that one of three suspected cases had been confirmed in the western province of Herat. Feroz announced a state of emergency in the province bordering Iran.

The minister said the infected person was a 35-year-old man who recently returned from Qom, a popular place of religious study for Shi'a from across Iran and other countries that is 120 kilometers south of Tehran.

Iraq's Health Ministry later said an Iranian theology student in the Iraqi city of Najaf had been diagnosed with the disease.

The patient, who is now in quarantine, entered Iraq before the government shut border crossings and banned the entry of any non-Iraqis coming from Iran, the ministry said.

In the Persian Gulf, Kuwait said three people who were among 700 evacuated from the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad last week were infected by the new virus, state news agency KUNA reported.

Oman's Health Ministry reported the first two cases of coronavirus infection in the country, local television reported.

It said the two Omani women diagnosed with the disease had visited Iran.

Bahrain's state media said the country detected its first case of the coronavirus. The Bahrain News Agency quoted the Health Ministry as saying the infected person was a Bahraini citizen arriving from Iran.

In Iran, where most of the infections were in Qom, authorities have imposed restrictions on public spaces and travel in an effort to curtail the disease's spread.

The Health Ministry has closed schools and universities in several cities, along with movie theaters. Theater and concert events have been canceled. Professional soccer games will be played as planned but without spectators.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki said that among those who died from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between China and Iran using indirect flights in recent weeks.

Neighboring countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia, and Afghanistan have imposed travel and immigration restrictions on the Islamic republic.

All five of Pakistan's entry points with Iran in the southwestern province of Balochistan have been closed, according to a spokesperson for the provincial government.

Georgia, Tajikistan, and Oman suspended direct flights with Iran.

In South Korea, seven people have died with 833 people infected -- the largest number outside China. Many new cases have been linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

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Italy, which has the largest number of cases in Europe, 219, reported four more deaths on February 24, raising the total there to seven.

Authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, to try to contain the virus.

Italian shares tumbled more than 5 percent, the biggest daily drop in almost four years, while residents emptied supermarket shelves to stock up on essentials.

At least 2,592 people have died from the virus in mainland China, where the virus emerged last year, with more than 75,000 confirmed cases reported.

The country postponed its annual parliament session for the first time in decades because of the outbreak.

State television said the new date for the National People's Congress, which was originally scheduled to start on March 5, would be set later.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's national flag carrier said it had suspended all flights to and from China until March 15.

Pakistan International Airlines "stopped its flights to China because there are no passengers. People are not traveling there due to coronavirus," spokesman Abdullah Khan told RFE/RL.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Radio Free Afghanistan, Armenian Service, and Radio Mashaal