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Iran parliament speaker and Israeli health minister have coronavirus

By Amir Vahdat and Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press

Iran’s parliament speaker has become the country’s highest-ranking government figure to test positive for coronavirus.

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

Meanwhile, as Israel’s case count rose to over 6,800, including 34 deaths, the country was rattled by the diagnosis of its health minister, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone back into self-isolation (Ian Nicholson/PA)

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 Covid-19 killed another 124 people, pushing the country’s death toll to 3,160.

Mr 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 defence 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 coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, according to state TV.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

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

Mr 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 Mr Litzman.

In a sign of how the virus risks fuelling regional tensions, Yehiya Sinwar, a leader of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that rules the Gaza Strip, warned Israel that it would respond with force in case of ventilator or food shortages.

“If coronavirus patients in Gaza happen to stop breathing, we still stop 6 million Zionists from breathing and we will take what we want by force,” he said in a live address on Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV.

Public health officials have said that a coronavirus outbreak could devastate the Gaza Strip, a crowded coastal territory reeling from conflict, poverty and a 13-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade.