Tehran(ANN)-Iran’s Vice-President Masoumeh Ebtekar has become the country’s fourth official to be diagnosed with coronavirus, state media has reported.

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 head of Iran's counter-coronavirus task force has tested positive for the virus himself, authorities announced

Iranian minister with COVID-19 sweats on stage

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, according to state TV.

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.

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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.

The Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, which is visited by millions of Shia Muslim pilgrims every year from all over the world, is seen by many as a miraculous source of recovery and healing. Shia clerics are reluctant to see it shut down due to the outbreak.

In a related issue, the BBC reported that an Iranian medical importer has said that he is unable to purchase virus testing kits due to US-imposed sanctions. The US has denied that its sanctions are restricting Iran’s ability to import medical supplies, but Iran says companies find it difficult to process payments with banks unwilling to risk breaking US rules and thus risk sanctions themselves.

The coronavirus has spread to more than 25 countries, killing around 2,700 people in China alone. There is mounting alarm due to new outbreaks in the Middle East and Asia. Italy has become the main focal point of the virus in Europe with the number of cases rising to 400.

In other developments around the world:

  • The UK has confirmed two new cases of COVID-19, taking the national total to 15
  • Around 160 British tourists are in lockdown at a Tenerife hotel over coronavirus fears
  • 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
  • Donald Trump has appointed his vice president Mike Pence to lead the US response to the coronavirus
  • 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 334 more cases, bringing its total to 1,595 – the second-highest number after China
  • China reports 433 new cases, 383 in the city of Wuhan, where the disease emerged in December