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Iran’s vice president Masoumeh Ebtekar has COVID-19 as 26 are killed by virus

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A vice president of Iran, Masoumeh Ebtekar, has the new coronavirus, a state-owned newspaper says.

She is the VP for women and family affairs. Her symptoms are said to be mild; and she has not been admitted to hospital.

Ms Ebtekar is also known as the English-language spokeswoman “Mary” for the 1979 hostage-takers who seized the US embassy in Tehran and sparked a 444-day diplomatic crisis.

Iran has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths outside China. At least 26 people have died; and there have been 254 confirmed cases, including 106 new infections.

Some 10% of those who have tested positive in Iran for COVID-19 – the disease caused by novel coronavirus – have died.

But the World Heath Organisation has said this relatively high fatality figure is largely down to mild cases not being picked up.

Iran has also banned Chinese citizens from entering the country, the state news agency IRNA said.

The announcement about Ms Ebtekar having coronavirus comes two days after the man tasked with spearheading efforts to tackle the outbreak in the country also tested positive.

Iraj Harirchi was seen sweating and appeared uncomfortable at a news conference about the virus.

Mr Harirchi, deputy health minister and head of Iran’s anti-coronavirus taskforce; posted a video online confirming he had the virus and was self-isolating at home.

The virus’ epicentre in the Islamic Republic is the holy Shia city of Qom, where there is a famous shrine which remains open despite the government calling for it to be closed.

But authorities, including President Hassan Rouhani, said Iran has no plans to quarantine any “cities and districts” despite the sharp rise in infections in a short time.

However, the outbreak has led authorities to suspended Friday prayers in Tehran, Qom and other cities.

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur has urged Iranians to avoid “unnecessary trips inside the country”.

And the government has extended for another week its closure of cinemas; and temporary ban on cultural events and conferences.

Officials have loosened rules barring the import of many foreign-made items so sanitisers, face masks and other necessities can be allowed in.

Iran’s foreign ministry said “20,000 coronavirus test kits and some other material” will be delivered to Iran on Friday from China.

Authorities have also removed overhead handles on Tehran’s underground system to eliminate another source of germs.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, amid concerns over the coronavirus.

It appeared Saudi officials are worried about the risk of pilgrims spreading the virus as they apparently had in Iran.

In other developments around the world:

  • The UK has confirmed three new cases of COVID-19, including the first in Northern Ireland
  • Stock markets are falling sharply again as countries report a surge in coronavirus cases
  • Some UK hospitals and other medical sites including GP surgeries will now test flu patients for the virus
  • The government has banned the export of an HIV drug; and anti-malaria infection treatment so that they can be tested as potential treatments for COVID-19
  • Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency recommends the country’s holiday firms suspend tours to Italy; South Korea; and Iran until outbreaks are brought under control
  • South Korea has reported 505 more cases, bringing its total to 1,766; the second-highest number after China, which has around 78,500
  • China reports 433 new cases, 383 in the city of Wuhan; where the disease emerged in December
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