Iran parliament speaker, Israeli health minister have virus

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In this Monday, March 2, 2020 photo, Israel’s Health Minister Yaakov Litzman delivers a statement as he visits a makeshift tent for quarantined coronavirus voters in Tel Aviv, Israel. Litzman, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials, has the new coronavirus, the Health Ministry announced Thursday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s parliament speaker has contracted the coronavirus, the country’s highest-ranking government figure yet to catch the disease, while in Israel, several top officials entered quarantine when the health minister tested positive on Thursday.

Iran’s parliament announced Ali Larijani’s illness on its website, saying he was receiving treatment in quarantine. Iran, the regional epicenter of the coronavirus, has been fighting one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

Meanwhile Israel, which reported over 6,800 cases and 31 deaths on Thursday, was rattled by the diagnosis of its health minister, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Middle East has confirmed over 82,000 cases of the virus and over 3,600 deaths, most of them in Iran. Iran’s Health Ministry said Thursday that the new coronavirus killed another 124 people, pushing the country’s death toll to 3,160.

Larijani, a former Revolutionary Guard commander who enjoys close relations to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has led Iran’s legislative body since 2008. Over the years he has held various positions in the top ranks of Iran’s government, including head of state television, minister of culture and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which helps set foreign and defense policy. A number of his family members also hold top government positions.

In a rare acknowledgment of the severity of the outbreak, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the new coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, state TV reported Thursday.

“We always have to follow the health protocols provided by the health ministry,” Rouhani added.

In Lebanon, the Philippines ambassador, Bernardita Catalla, died of complications from the coronavirus Thursday, the Philippines said. Lebanon has recorded 494 cases, including 16 deaths.

Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife, who also caught the virus, are members of Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox community, which has been particularly hard-hit. The government said they feel well and are being treated.

Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu’s office said he returned to self-quarantine because of contact with Litzman.

Netanyahu, who has tested negative, had previously been in isolation after a top aide contracted the virus. Hebrew language media reported that the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and the National Security Council were asked to self-quarantine because of their interactions with Litzman.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia that can be fatal.

In war-torn Syria, the government extended the closures of mosques until April 16, nearly a week before the start of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims spend more time in prayers and worship. It also extended indefinitely a ban on visits to prison and detention facilities, citing concerns over the spread of the virus, and expanded curfew times over weekend days.

Rights groups have called on governments across the Mideast to release thousands of political detainees held in crammed and unhygienic jails. In government-controlled Syria, 16 cases of infection and two deaths were reported, although limited disease surveillance systems have bred concern that the virus may be spreading further.

As fears of wider contagion grew, the government announced Thursday it would isolate Sayyida Zeinab, a southern suburb of the capital, Damascus. The site, home to one of the holiest Shiite shrines that draws thousands of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims, is heavily guarded by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and has been closed to visitors since March as part of the government’s measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The World Health Organization said it was increasing preparedness in the rebel-controlled, northwestern region of Syria where nearly 4 million people live, most of them displaced by the war and repeated government offensives. The territory is particularly at risk: the war has destroyed or closed half of its health facilities, and crowded conditions in displacement camps threaten to accelerate contagion.

Meanwhile, with countries closing borders to slow the spread of the virus, the aviation industry’s largest trade association warned the pandemic is expected to wipe out $23 billion in passenger revenue from airlines across the Middle East and Africa this year.

The International Air Transport Association said Mideast airlines will see a $19 billion drop in revenue this year, compared to 2019. Airlines in Africa, which include EgyptAir, are expected to see a $4 billion drop. Hundreds of thousands of job in the aviation sector are also at risk across both regions.

Saudi Arabia’s revenue loss could exceed $5.6 billion this year, as all pilgrimage flights are currently halted in addition to commercial flights to and from the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates, home to world’s busiest airport for international travel in Dubai, is projected to lose $5.4 billion in revenue.

Egypt and Qatar could also see more than $1 billion each in revenue loss, while the aviation sector in South Africa is expected to lose $2.3 billion in potential revenue.

IATA said projections are based on assumptions that travel restrictions will continue through the second quarter of 2020. Even if travel recovers partially in the second half of the year, it will be slow, reeling from an overall slump in the global economy and weakened passenger demand.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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Ben Zion reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.

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