Iran has issued its most dire warning yet about the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if the public keeps travelling and ignoring health guidance.
The claim by a senior medic on state TV came as it emerged the virus has killed 135 more people in the country – a 13% spike that raises the death toll to 988 amid 16,169 infections.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel.
The death toll’s continued sharp increase is causing concern among experts that the outbreak in the Islamic Republic is far from being contained.
Meanwhile, Friday will mark the Persian New Year, Nowruz, raising fears of people travelling and spreading the virus further.
The Iranian state TV journalist, Dr Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios.
She said if people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over.
If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.
But Dr Eslami warned that if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran’s already-strained medical system.
If the medical facilities are not sufficient, “there will be four million cases, and 3.5 million people will die”, she said.
Dr Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used, but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly controlled state television represented a major change for a country whose officials had for days denied the severity of the crisis.
It has also emerged that Iran has released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave in a bid to curb the spread of the illness.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said that those released include half of all “security-related” prisoners, without elaborating.
Western nations have called on Iran to release dual nationals and others held allegedly as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Among those released is Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, the son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who was in jail for nearly two months.
Earlier, hard-line Shia faithful pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just been closed over fears of the virus.
Roughly nine out of 10 of more than 18,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed.
Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.
Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine and Qom’s Fatima Masumeh shrine.
Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That has worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran’s Shia clergy to close them.
Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines’ closure, sparking the demonstrations.
President Hassan Rouhani said despite the closures, “our soul is closer to the saints more than at any time”.