15mn Iranians could be infected with Covid-19, health official admits

15 million Iranians may have been infected with coronavirus – one in five of the population – health official admits

  • Official said Iran is now testing recovered patients’ blood to detect antibodies  
  • Data from these tests suggests that 18.75 per cent of Iranians were infected 
  • Up until now, Iran has been testing members of the public to ‘confirm’ cases  
  • Last week, Iran became the first country to report a second wave of infections 
  • Country saw cases drop in April after ordering people to stay in their homes   
  • Infections rose by 2,095 since yesterday while deaths increased by 74 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Fifteen million Iranians may have been infected with coronavirus since Iran’s outbreak started in February, one of the country’s top health officials admitted today. 

The figure represents 18.75 per cent of the more than 80 million population of Iran, which is around one in five.    

‘About 15 million Iranians may have experienced being infected with this virus since the outbreak began,’ said Ehsan Mostafavi, a member of the task force set up to combat COVID-19.

This meant the virus was ‘much less lethal than we or the world had anticipated’, the semi-official ISNA news agency quoted him as saying. 

The admission comes a week after the Islamic Republic became the first country in the world to report a second wave of infections after easing its lockdown.     

Figures from last week show Iran reaching a second peak of coronavirus infections, beating its previous highest day of recorded cases from the end of March 

Officials have put the ‘second wave’ down to increased testing, and point to the fact that deaths have not followed suit (pictured) as evidence. Deaths often lag behind cases, because of the time it takes an infected person to get sick enough to die

Mostafavi said the data came from serology tests, which are performed on a sample group to detect how many people have antibodies in their blood.  

Officials found that 18.75 per cent of the sample group tested had antibodies to the virus, suggesting they had the virus but recovered. 

Scaling up the results, this suggests that 18.75 per cent of the Iranian population may have already been infected with the disease.  

What is an antibody blood test and what is it used for?

Antibody tests are ones which look for signs of past infection in someone’s blood. 

Antibodies are substances produced by the immune system which store memories of how to fight off a specific virus. They can only be created if the body is exposed to the virus by getting infected for real, or through a vaccine or other type of specialist immune therapy.

Generally speaking, antibodies produce immunity to a virus because they are redeployed if it enters the body for a second time, defeating the bug faster than it can take hold and cause an illness. 

An antibody test, which involves analysis of someone’s blood sample, has two purposes: to reveal whether an individual has been infected in the past and may therefore be protected against the virus, and to count those people.

Knowing you are immune to a virus – although whether people actually develop immunity to Covid-19 is still unknown – can affect how you act in the future. Someone may need to protect themselves less if they know they have been infected, for example, or medical staff may be able to return to work in the knowledge they are not at risk.

Counting the numbers of people who have antibodies is the most accurate way of calculating how many people in a population have had the virus already.

This can be done on a small sample of the population and the figures scaled up to give a picture of the country as a whole.

In turn, this can inform scientists and politicians how devastating a second outbreak might be, and how close the country is to herd immunity – a situation in which so many people have had the virus already that it would not be able to spread quickly a second time.

Experts believe that around 60 per cent exposure would be required for herd immunity from Covid-19, but the UK does not appear to be anywhere close to that.

Early estimates suggest 17 per cent of Londoners have had the virus, along with five per cent of the rest of the country – about 4.83million people.

This means the virus might spread slightly slower in future but the risk of second outbreak and hundreds or thousands more deaths remains very real. 

These serology (blood) tests differ from polymerise chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are used to detect whether an individual has the coronavirus antigen. 

Iran says it has carried out more than one million PCR tests to ‘confirm’ infections and report them.     

Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said 74 new coronavirus fatalities in the past 12 hours had raised the overall death toll to 8,425.

Cases of infection rose by 2,095 over the same period to total 175,927, she added.    

The Middle Eastern nation was the first country in the world to report a second wave of infections on Wednesday last week, logging 3,574 cases, beating its previous worst day of 3,186 cases logged over two months earlier.

Since Wednesday, while the infection rate appears to be decreasing, deaths seem to be hovering around 70 fatalities per day.  

Iran began easing lockdown restrictions – which were imposed in February as the virus ran rampant – in mid-April as the disease declined. 

Cases began picking up again in early May and have now been above 3,000 for three days running, even as gyms and public offices were reopened at the weekend.

Iranian health officials have argued that the ‘second wave’ is actually the result of better testing and data-logging, after serious doubts were raised over the accuracy of its data when the virus first hit.

That is partially confirmed by the fact that the country’s daily death figures have not been rising along with the infection total. 

If the true number of infections including those not picked up in tests had been rising, then the number of deaths would be expected to follow suit.   

Still, the figures have been enough to worry Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, who rebuked people for failing to take the virus seriously . 

Speaking last Wednesday as the record case total was reported, Rouhani said: ‘If in any part of the country these warnings are not taken seriously and, God forbid, the outbreak of illness peaks again, the authorities will have to re-impose restrictions. 

‘This will create problems for the ordinary lives of citizens and also will bring serious economic damage to society.’

Health Minister Saeed Namaki added: People seem to think the coronavirus is over.  

‘The outbreak is not over yet and at any moment it may come back stronger than before.’

‘If our people fail to respect the health protocols… we must prepare ourselves for the worst situation.’

He spoke after a health ministry poll showed just 40 per cent of Iranians now believe in obeying social distancing rules, down from 90 per cent earlier in the outbreak.

The number of people who believed in self-isolating stood at 32 per cent, down from 86 per cent.  

While several countries have reported second outbreaks of the disease, Iran is the only one to have reported a consistent and sustained rise in cases after an initial fall.

South Korea has suffered several outbreaks since easing its social distancing measures, but has used test and tracing systems to stamp them out. 

Iran imposed lockdown measures in February as the disease ran rampant, but began easing measures in mid-April after cases went into steady decline

President Hassan Rouhani warned on Wednesday that lockdown will have to be reimposed unless people ‘take the virus seriously’

Outbreaks in China and Germany have been treated in a similar fashion.

Other countries such as Brazil, Peru, and South Africa are consistently reporting record numbers of cases – but have not yet defeated their first wave.

Iran was one of the hardest-hit countries outside of mainland China early on in the pandemic, and still has one of the highest overall case totals in the world. 

Iran was among the hardest-hit countries outside China early on during the pandemic, and has so far reported 164,270 cases and 8,071 deaths

Iran’s death figure is remarkably low for the number of cases, but doubts have been raised over whether all deaths are being logged. 

Some countries only include deaths in hospital where a positive coronavirus test came back before the patient died.

This largely excludes deaths in care homes, which in some countries make up a significant proportion of those who have died 

Where countries have included suspected coronavirus cases and deaths outside hospitals in their tally, the total has increased significantly.

Globally, there are more than 6.6million cases and 391,000 deaths. South America has now emerged as the worst-affected continent. 

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