| Iran’s vice president and two ministers test positive for coronavirus

Iran’s senior vice president and two other cabinet members have the new coronavirus, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

The news report on Wednesday comes amid days of speculation about the health of Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who has not been seen in images of recent top-level meetings.

Fars said other sick officials are Ali Asghar Mounesan, minister of cultural heritage, handicrafts and tourism, and Reza Rahmani, minister of industry, mines and business.

There was no immediate report on official state media about the infections.

Iran is among the world nations hardest-hit by the virus.

Death toll

The death toll in Iran from the new coronavirus climbed for another consecutive day, killing 62 more people in the past 24 hours as the government on Wednesday raised the nationwide death toll to 354.

Iran’s health ministry said the deaths are among some 9,000 confirmed cases in Iran, where the virus has spread to all of the country’s 31 provinces. 

READ | WHO labels coronavirus a ‘pandemic’

Across the Middle East, the vast majority of the 9,700 people who have contracted the coronavirus or the COVID-19 illness that it causes are in hard-hit Iran or had recently returned from there.

The Islamic Republic has one of the world’s worst death tolls outside of China, the epicentre of the outbreak. Outside of Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Middle East.

Middle East countries affected

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has barred travel to and from 14 countries affected by the new virus. Early on, as the virus spread in Asia, the kingdom stopped pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, and cut travel links with China and later, Iran.

It also barred entry and exit for residents of Qatif, an eastern Saudi province where most of the country’s 21 cases of the virus are confirmed after travel back to Iran.

In the Gulf Arab island nation of Bahrain, authorities say their number of confirmed cases on Wednesday spiked by nearly 70 percent to 189 confirmed cases. The 77 new cases were all on a returning flight of Bahraini evacuees from Iran.

In Qatar, the public health ministry confirmed on Wednesday that 238 new cases of COVID-19 for “expatriates who had contact with the three cases that were declared infected last Sunday”. The ministry said the initial three patients all reside in one residential complex.

Lebanon reported its second death Wednesday, saying a 53-year-old man died of the virus. The health ministry said 37 percent of the cases reported in Lebanon originated from four countries: Egypt, Iran, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

There are 26 confirmed cases in the occupied West Bank, mainly in Bethlehem. Gaza’s health ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. The Gaza Strip is free of the virus. The statement said pilgrims returning through the Rafah border needed to abide by procedures and self-quarantine.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a $2.8bn rescue package to stabilise the economy as it grapples with the virus. The money will double a previously announced fund to help businesses hit by the crisis to $2.4bn. It also includes roughly $280m for the health sector.

“The Israeli economy is in a better situation than most economies in the world,” Netanyahu said. “However, we have a great challenge here. In our view, we can also deal with it in a way that will allow us to get through it successfully in peace.”

Israel has diagnosed a total of 77 cases of the virus. It has imposed a number of restrictions, including two weeks of home quarantine for anyone arriving from overseas.

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