Outbreak in Iran centers on holy city of Qom, where officials say travellers from China brought new coronavirus infecting 43 people so far. Meanwhile, Iran's neighbours close land and air traffic with it over jump in infection cases.

A policeman and pedestrians wear masks to help guard against the Coronavirus, in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sunday, February 23, 2020.
A policeman and pedestrians wear masks to help guard against the Coronavirus, in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sunday, February 23, 2020. (AP)

Turkey on Sunday announced it would "temporarily" close its land border with neighbouring Iran as alarm grows over a spike in new coronavirus infections.

"We have decided to shut the land border temporarily after an increase in the number of cases in our neighbour Iran," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told reporters. He said air traffic would be unilaterally halted from 2000 (1700 GMT).

All highways and railways will be closed as of 5 pm (14:00GMT) on Sunday, Koca said.

The Turkish Health Ministry in a statement asked people not to believe in social media posts claiming coronavirus presence in the country.

"There's no case of COVID-19 in our country," the ministry said.

Iran reported three more novel coronavirus deaths among 15 new cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of fatalities in the Islamic republic to eight and infections to 43.

That's the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak first emerged a couple of months ago.  The outbreak in Iran has centered on the holy city of Qom, where officials say travellers from China brought the new coronavirus.

China reported another 97 deaths in its daily update on Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 people have been infected worldwide, the vast majority in China.

Virus came from China

Iran's Health Minister Saeed Namaki told state TV that the virus came from China to the holy city of Qom in central Iran. He said that one of the Iranian who dead from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks after Iran stopped direct passenger flights to China.

Namaki also defended the government's handling of the outbreak, saying it was being "transparent." He said it would help make face-masks and sanitisers available for Iranians, amid concerns that stocks were running low in the capital's pharmacies.

Iran is also producing kits for diagnosis of the infection, he added.

Namaki urged people not to visit Qom, which is a major destination for pilgrims.

"We obviously do not recommend traveling to Qom and other pilgrimage cities," Namaki said.

The government has closed down schools and religious seminaries in the holy city of Qom, where the virus first killed two elderly patients last week. Schools in Tehran and four other cities were closed as well, starting Sunday for two days.

Iran has also set up 36 screening stations at different ports of entry to the country to check for possibly infected travellers, he added.

Neighbours take measures

Iraq and Pakistan, which share borders with Iran, have already taken preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus from Iranian travellers.

Officials in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which shares a long frontier with Iran, have declared an emergency as they seek to stop the spread of the virus via the Taftan border crossing with Iran.

Infected travellers from Iran already have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada.

Saudi Arabia has ordered anyone travelling from Iran to wait at least 14 days before entering the kingdom as it seeks to prevent the spread of the virus to the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina.

On Sunday, Afghanistan also "temporarily" halted travel to and from Iran over the virus fears.

Three suspected cases of the coronavirus have surfaced in Afghanistan, officials said.

The three suspects, all adult men, recently returned from the Iranian city of Qom to Herat in Afghanistan, Dr Nazeer Ahmad, a member of the country's coronavirus control committee told Anadolu Agency.

The suspects are being kept in isolated medical care, Ahmad added.

Their blood samples, according to the Health Ministry, have been brought to the capital Kabul for confirmation.

Armenia also announced closing border and air traffic with Iran for two weeks. 

Jordan takes measures

Jordan on Sunday said it would bar citizens from China, Iran, and South Korea from entering the kingdom in a bid to prevent the deadly coronavirus outbreak spreading.

The minister of state for media affairs, Amjad Adayleh, said the decision was part of "pre-emptive measures... following the rise in cases of coronavirus in South Korea, Iran" and China.

Italy cancels Venice carnival

Scrambling to contain a rapidly soaring number of new coronavirus infections in northern Italy, authorities on Sunday stepped up measures to ban public gatherings, including stopping Venice's famed carnival events, which has drawn tens of thousands of revelers to a region that is now in the heart of the outbreak.

"The ordinance is immediately operative and will go into effect at midnight,'' announced Veneto regional Governor Luca Zaia, whose area includes Venice. 

Carnival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the lagoon city, would have run through Tuesday. Museums, schools, universities and other public venues will be shut as well in Venice and the rest of Veneto. The shutdown is expected to last at least through March 1.

Authorities said three people in Venice have tested positive, all of them in their late 80s and who are hospitalized in critical condition. Nearly all of Italy's 133 cases are clustered in the north, including in the Veneto region.

The biggest jump in cases of confirmed COVID-19 was reported by authorities in Lombardy, a populous region that includes the country's financial capital, Milan. That region had at least 89 cases, nearly all of them in small towns in the countryside. 

High alert in South Korea

South Korea raised the nation's alert to its "highest" level, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 602.

Led by an outbreak cluster in a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, South Korea now has the most infections outside of China –– apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.

"The next few days will be crucial," Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.

"The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts' recommendations."

Moon did not specify what those measures may include.

South Korea reported 169 new cases and three deaths on Sunday, taking the countrywide fatality toll to five. Yonhap news agency later reported a sixth death.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies