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In this Monday Feb. 24, 2020, image made from video, the head of Iran's counter-coronavirus task force, Iraj Harirchi, left, wipes his face during a press briefing with government spokesman Ali Rabiei, in Tehran, Iran. Harirchi, has tested positive for the virus himself, authorities announced Tuesday, amid concerns the outbreak may be far wider than officially acknowledged.The Canadian Press

Iraj Harirchi was trying to look confident and in control. But he kept coughing and sweating.

Mr. Harirchi, Iran’s deputy minister of health, gave a televised news conference Monday aimed at calming fears about the rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the Islamic Republic.

Rumours of a deadly outbreak that had killed 50 people in the holy city of Qom were false, Mr. Harirchi said – adding that he would resign if the number of deaths was even half that high.

“The situation is almost stable in the country,” he said between coughs and wipes at his brow with a handkerchief.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harirchi posted a video from his bed at home, where he is now in quarantine – himself a victim of the coronavirus. “We will be victorious in our combat against this virus within the next few weeks,” he said in the video.

His brave words will be of little comfort to most Iranians. Just last month, the regime showed it was willing to lie to the public for days about the fact its military had shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane near Tehran.

Qom has the makings of the next Wuhan, the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak. Cases now rippling through the Middle East – in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman – have been connected to travellers who had visited the Shia holy city. Many of those countries are ill-equipped to deal with a severe health crisis. Two of Canada’s 12 confirmed cases recently returned from Iran.

Preliminary findings by a group of Canadian researchers determined that Iran may have as many as 18,300 carriers, an epidemic many times the size of the 139 cases Tehran has officially acknowledged.

“Given the low volumes of air travel to countries with identified cases of COVID-19 with origin in Iran (such as Canada), it is likely that Iran is currently experiencing a COVID-19 epidemic of significant size for such exportations to be occurring," reads a synopsis of the findings, published Tuesday on medRxiv, a website that publishes preliminary research that has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Iran’s early handling of the outbreak – the government’s instinct to pretend all was well in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary – is eerily reminiscent of China’s, where the Communist Party denied and obfuscated for weeks before finally admitting the severity of the threat.

China’s belated but full-scale response – the quarantining of entire cities and the rapid construction of purpose-built hospitals – has earned it admiration in some quarters (Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, praised Beijing for setting “a new standard"). But there’s little doubt that the secrecy impulse of authoritarian regimes has aided the incubation and spread of the virus.

After Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who would become the virus’s most famous victim, first raised the alarm online on Dec. 30, he was called in for interrogation by the local Public Security Bureau and accused of “spreading rumours” that “disturbed the social order.” And while China did inform the WHO about the existence of a new coronavirus on Dec. 31, the government initially decided not to tell its own people.

Foreshadowing Mr. Harirchi’s decision six weeks later to go ahead with the news conference in Tehran, officials in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province went ahead with the biggest event on their political calendar, the annual gathering of local Communist Party officials. More than 2,400 people attended a series of overlapping meetings in the city from Jan. 12 to 17.

Wuhan’s health commission announced no new cases that week, and coverage of the outbreak disappeared from the front pages of local newspapers. Two days later, on Sunday, Jan. 19, the health commission suddenly announced 136 new cases at once. Four days later, all travel in and out of Wuhan was halted.

“Politics first. Stability preservation first. In such an environment, science can only sit by and watch,” a Wuhan-based journalist who uses the pen name Da Shiji wrote for Hong Kong-based China Media Watch.

Iran’s official death toll from the outbreak rose by four Wednesday to 19, the second-highest after China’s, which has lost more than 2,700 citizens. (Northeastern Italy, with 357 confirmed cases, officially has a bigger outbreak than Iran, but with 11 dead.)

Iraq closed its border with Iran Saturday, and the UAE has barred all flights originating from the country. The key question is how long the virus has been present in Qom, a city that receives 20 million religious pilgrims every year. While schools, cinemas and sporting venues have been ordered closed in much of Iran, the religious establishment defied a request from the government and kept the shrines in Qom and other cities open Wednesday.

Ahmad Amiri Farahani, an MP from Qom, told the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency Monday that the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in the city two weeks before they were publicly reported. Fifty people had died already from the virus in Qom, he said, including 34 who had been placed in quarantine.

Ali Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman who sat beside Mr. Harirchi at the news conference as he denied Mr. Farahani’s allegations, was seen coughing through a televised appearance of his own the next day. He was later noticeably absent from a meeting of a government coronavirus task force that was chaired by President Hassan Rouhani.

“They say this virus is a democratic one – it doesn’t distinguish between the rich and poor and between those in power and not in power,” Mr. Harirchi said in the video from his home quarantine. “Look after yourselves.”