First Iraqis catch coronavirus amid fear of Iran epidemic spillover

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq shut schools and universities on Tuesday and told citizens to avoid mass gatherings, as it rushed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from its neighbor Iran, hit by what appeared to be the worst outbreak outside of China.

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An Iraqi family of four who returned from Iran tested positive for the coronavirus in Kirkuk province. They were the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease, a day after an Iranian student in Najaf became Iraq’s first confirmed case.

Measures to curb the spread could have major political repercussions in Iraq, where around 500 people have been killed in anti-government protests since last year. A populist cleric called off plans on Tuesday for a “million-man” demonstration.

In Mosul, all public offices would be closed on Wednesday and Thursday, the governor said. Mosques were instructed to include advice on avoiding coronavirus in their Friday sermons.

Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak. It has cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and receives millions of Iranian pilgrims each year at holy festivals.

The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from Iran and China, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.

On Tuesday the government urged Iraqis to avoid all public gatherings. Gatherings were banned in Najaf, one of the most heavily visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Schools and universities were shut, for 10 days in Najaf and indefinitely in Kirkuk. The autonomous northern Kurdish region canceled all education until after a March 20 holiday.

Iran has reported 16 coronavirus deaths, the most outside China, and at least 95 confirmed cases including the deputy health minister. On Monday it said it had 900 suspected cases, which, if confirmed, would be the most outside China. The semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people have been hospitalized in Iran.

International experts worry that official numbers could underestimate the scale of Iran’s outbreak.

The four new cases in Iraq were placed in quarantine, the health ministry said. The Iranian student was sent back to Iran by ambulance.

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic have grown sharply this week after sharp rises in new cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea. The virus has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,660 in China, where it originated late last year.

Najaf, burial place of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, attracts millions of Shi’ite pilgrims each year.

The governor of Kerbala, another Shi’ite holy city which attracts millions of pilgrims a year, banned Iranian and Chinese visitors.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya, Jamal Badrani in Mosul, and a Reuters correspondent in Kerbala; Editing by Peter Graff