WHO officials say coronavirus outbreak in Iran is ‘very worrisome’

A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks by a propaganda banner on February 20, 2020 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer

World health officials said Friday the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Iran, where health officials confirmed 18 new cases and 4 deaths in just two days, is “very worrisome.”

Earlier in the day, Iran confirmed 13 new coronavirus cases, bringing its total in the country to 18. Seven people with the flu-like virus were diagnosed in Qom, four people in Tehran and two in Gilan.

The small outbreak in Iran has been linked to a case in Canada and another infection of a 45-year-old woman in Lebanon after those patients traveled to the Middle East nation.

“The cases that we see in the rest of the world, although the numbers are small, but not linked to Wuhan or China, it’s very worrisome,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said Friday at a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. “These dots are actually very concerning.”

Health officials are receiving information about the patients in Iran, but “we have to engage them even more,” Tedros said.

World health officials still have a chance to contain the virus, he said, but it’s getting less likely by the day.

“The window of opportunity is still there, but our window of opportunity is narrowing,” he said. “We need to act quickly before it closes completely.” He also cautioned: “This outbreak could still go in any direction.”

Iran’s health-care system has the “basic capacity” to detect and contain the coronavirus, said Dr. Jaouad Mahjour, assistant director of emergency preparedness at WHO. World health officials said they remain concerned about the potential spread of the virus to countries with weaker health systems.

Outside of China, there are 1,152 cases across 26 countries and eight deaths, Tedros said.

World health officials have said the respiratory disease is capable of spreading through human-to-human contact, droplets carried through sneezing and coughing and germs left on inanimate objects.

There are currently no proven therapies for the new virus.

Preliminary results from two clinical trials testing potential treatments for COVID-19 are expected in three weeks, Tedros said on Thursday. One trial combines HIV drugs Lopinavir and Ritonavir, while the other is testing U.S.-based biotech Gilead Sciences’ antiviral Remdesivir.

Local authorities in China have been using Gilead’s Remdesivir, which was tested as a possible treatment during the Ebola outbreak, to fight infections. Some authorities are also using antiviral drug Kaletra, a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, on a compassionate basis.

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