DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has found three suspected cases of the coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on Tuesday, calling it an alarm bell after COVID-19 deaths hit a daily record of 496 a day earlier.
Iran, the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East and which is grappling with a fourth wave, reported 462 deaths on Tuesday. Some 70,532 people have died out of 2.4 million cases, according to official statistics.
“Unfortunately we received a report about three cases of the South African virus, and we are making more checks to confirm this,” Namaki said in remarks carried by state TV.
“We are also checking cases of Indian visitors infected with the coronavirus and hope that they don’t carry the (Indian) mutated virus,” Namaki said. “In any case, these alarm bells tell us that we need to increase social distancing and better follow health precautions.”
On Saturday Iran barred travelers from India and neighbouring Pakistan to avert the spread of the virus variant.
Non-essential businesses in Iran have been under lockdown for the past three weeks.
The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that it had vaccinated 90 percent of health workers and it was starting the vaccination of those aged over 80.
The government has faced criticism for its slow vaccination drive. But officials have blamed U.S. sanctions for hampering efforts to buy foreign vaccines.
Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after withdrawing from Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.
But the U.S. measures, which target sectors including oil and banks, have deterred some foreign banks from processing financial transactions with Iran, which Tehran says has frequently disrupted efforts to import essential medicines and other humanitarian items.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)