Coronavirus kills senior cleric as Iran toll hits 853

The novel coronavirus killed a top Iranian cleric on Monday, the Islamic Republic said as it reported yet another record high single-day death toll in one of the world's worst-hit countries. The latest 129 deaths brought the overall toll to 853 fatalities among nearly 15,000 infections since 19 February, when the government announced Iran's first cases of the COVID-19 disease.

"Our plea is that everyone take this virus seriously and in no way attempt to travel to any province," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.

The disease has now killed at least 12 Iranian politicians and officials, both sitting and former, and infected 13 more who have either been quarantined or are being treated. The latest was Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, a member of the Assembly of Experts - an 88-strong body of clerics that appoints and monitors the country's supreme leader. The ayatollah, who was 78, died two days after testing positive for the disease and being hospitalised, state news agency IRNA reported.

The novel coronavirus also claimed the life of prominent economist and political activist Fariborz Rais-Dana on Monday. A prolific writer with a PhD from the London School of Economics, he had spent time in prison after being convicted of spreading propaganda against the system.

The health ministry also reported 1,053 confirmed new cases of infection in the past 24 hours, raising the total to 14,991. [embed:render:embedded:node:39498]

Iran has been scrambling to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19 after it emerged in the holy Shia city of Qom last month. Since then, it has shut schools, postponed events and discouraged travel ahead of Nowrouz, the country's New Year holidays.

Iran has cancelled the main weekly Friday prayers, closed parliament and postponed the second round of legislative elections. The judiciary has also sent 83,000 inmates on temporary leave from jails, apparently over concerns of the virus spreading in the prison system.

But Iran has yet to impose a lockdown, and the official number of deaths and infections has continued to grow exponentially.

According to the health ministry, the rising trend is due to the increasing number of tests being carried out. It says many patients started showing symptoms days after they were infected.

Official tolls, which are given every 24 hours, have usually lagged behind reports by local media and have sometimes been contradicted by provincial authorities.

President Hassan Rouhani on Monday reiterated his call for people to refrain from travelling. Speaking in a video conference with Iran's anti-coronavirus headquarters in Tehran, he expressed hopes that the outbreak would soon be brought under control.

"God willing, this year-end will go down in history... as days of victory over this dangerous virus," he said.

But the head of a Tehran hospital said he was doubtful the virus could be contained without more stringent measures. "We are told by the people that you want us to stay home, but how can we when (government) organisations are not closed?" said Alireza Zali of the Shahid Beheshti medical university. "We should not be confusing people," he was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency, adding that many vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those with autoimmune diseases were not given leave from work.

The health ministry's latest figures showed that Tehran province had the highest number of new infections with 200 cases, about 50 fewer than the day before. The central province of Isfahan followed with 118 cases, with Mazandaran in the north of Iran coming next with 96. Khorasan Razavi province, home to the holy Shia city of Mashhad, was not among the reported provinces with fresh cases. It had recorded 143 the day before.

"If we judge cautiously, it seems that the overall efforts by the people and interventions by the health system... are slowly showing their effects in Qom and Gilan," Jahanpour said. The central province of Qom, where the virus was first reported, had 19 new cases that took the total to 1,023.

And confirmed infections in Gilan reached 858, with 18 new ones. The northern region is a popular tourist spot and among the worst-hit of Iran's 31 provinces.    (AFP)