Iran's supreme leader refused U.S. assistance Sunday to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could be man-made by America.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments come as Iran faces crushing U.S. sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets.
But while Iranian civilian officials in recent days have increasingly criticized those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus to deflect blame for the pandemic.
"I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Khamenei said. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more."
He also alleged without offering any evidence that the virus "is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means."
"You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person," he said.
There is no scientific proof offered anywhere in the world to support Khamenei's comments.
However, his comments come after Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted earlier this month that it "might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe(s) us an explanation!"
Lijian likewise offered no evidence to support his claim, which saw the U.S. State Department summon China's ambassador to complain.
Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the disease were detected in December. In recent days, the Trump administration has increasingly referred to the virus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus, while the World Health Organization used the term COVID-19 to describe the illness the virus causes. Even a U.S. senator from Arkansas has trafficked in the unfounded conspiracy theory it was a man-made Chinese bioweapon.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.
An article published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Medicine similarly said it was "improbable" that the virus "emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus."
Khamenei made the comments in a speech in Tehran broadcast live Sunday across Iran marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He had called off his usual speech at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad over the virus outbreak.
His comments come as Iran has over 21,600 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus amid 1,685 reported deaths, according to government figures released Sunday.
Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the new virus. Across the Mideast, Iran represents eight of 10 cases of the virus and those leaving the Islamic Republic have carried the virus to other countries.
Iranian officials have criticized U.S. offers of aid during the virus crisis as being disingenuous. They have accused the Trump administration of wanting to capitalize on its "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018. However, the U.S. has directly offered the Islamic Republic aid in the past despite decades of enmity, like during the devastating Bam earthquake of 2003.
Reassigning blame could be helpful to Iran's government, which faced widespread public anger after denying for days it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing 176 people. Widespread economic problems as well has seen mass demonstrations in recent years that saw hundreds reportedly killed.
Iranian hard-liners have supported conspiracy theories in the past when it suited their interests. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, some publicly doubted al-Qaida's role and state TV promoting the unfounded conspiracy theory that the Americans blew up the building themselves.
Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad similarly raised doubt about the Sept. 11 attack, calling it a "big lie," while also describing the Holocaust as a "myth."
Meanwhile on Sunday, Iran imposed a two-week closure on major shopping malls and centers across the country to prevent spreading the virus. Pharmacies, supermarkets, groceries and bakeries will remain open.
Indian migrant workers attempting to reach their home villages crowded a railway station in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday, defying a 14-hour "people's curfew" that Prime Minister Narendra Modi called to stem a surge in coronavirus cases in the world's second-most populous country.
Modi asked India's 1.3 billion people to stay at home on Sunday, but also to collectively cheer front-line health care workers at 5 p.m.
Shortly before 5, the cacophony in New Delhi, the capital, began as people on balconies and rooftops clapped, rang bells, banged pots and pans, played music recordings and exploded fireworks, sending crows and parakeets streaming from treetops, and stray dogs and cows into the deserted streets.
At least 341 people have been infected in India by the new coronavirus, including the first case in the largely impoverished eastern state of Bihar, according to health officials. Five people have died in the country from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Earlier Sunday, thousands of people from Mumbai and elsewhere in the western state of Maharashtra, which has confirmed the highest number of cases in India, jostled at a railway station in the city of Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. Police struggled from a distance to control the crowds, who were waiting to be taken to their villages by buses and taxis that appeared unlikely to come.
"We are playing with our health by crowding railway stations and bus stands," Modi said in a tweet.
Indian Railways later suspended all passenger train services until March 31, although freight services will continue. It was unclear what this would mean for people stranded at railway stations.
In recent days, migrant workers hauling backpacks have swarmed overcrowded trains across many Indian cities, an exodus among panic-stricken day laborers that has sparked fears the virus could spread to the countryside.
The typical bustle of New Delhi, meanwhile, was otherwise silent on Sunday, with nearly empty buses and taxis plying the city's lightly trafficked roads, gates to public gardens, temples and churches locked, and building guards with scarves tied around their faces seated outside on plastic chairs watching empty streets.
A road in New Delhi near a Sufi shrine where hundreds of pilgrims often camp was empty except for an occasional passing car.
Most businesses were to be closed Sunday except for essential services like hospitals.
While some Indian states — including Maharashtra — had already issued stay-in-place orders and closed borders, Sunday marked the first nationwide effort at social isolation practices that the World Health Organization believes are critical to flattening the infection curve worldwide.
No commercial airplanes from abroad are allowed to land in India for a week starting Sunday.
Officials said 23 people have recovered from COVID-19, and have not documented any community spread in India.
While the coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.
India's government has made fervent appeals to the public to practice social distancing and good hand hygiene. India also was one of the first countries to essentially shut its borders and deny entry to all but a select few foreigners.
However, experts have said indigenous spread of the disease in India, where tens of millions live in dense urban areas with irregular access to clean water, is inevitable.
New York City was hit by the nation's largest coronavirus jail outbreak to date this week, with at least 38 people testing positive at the notorious Rikers Island complex and nearby facilities — more than half of them incarcerated men, the board that oversees the city's jail system said Saturday.
Another inmate, meanwhile, became the first in the country to test positive in a federal jail.
In a letter to New York's criminal justice leaders, Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman described a jail system in crisis.
She said in the last week, board members learned that 12 Department of Correction employees, five Correctional Health Services employees, and 21 people in custody at Rikers and city jails had tested positive for the coronavirus.
And at least another 58 were being monitored in the prison's contagious disease and quarantine units, she said.
"It is likely these people have been in hundreds of housing areas and common areas over recent weeks and have been in close contact with many other people in custody and staff," said Sherman, warning that cases could skyrocket. "The best path forward to protecting the community of people housed and working in the jails is to rapidly decrease the number of people housed and working in them."
New York officials have consistently downplayed the number of infections in its prisons and jails, The Associated Press has found in conversations with current and former inmates.
The city's jail agency and its city-run healthcare provider did not respond to messages seeking comment on the letter. On Friday, the city's Department of Corrections said just one inmate had been diagnosed with coronavirus, along with seven jail staff members. Late Saturday, the department acknowledged 19 inmates had tested positive — two fewer than in the board's letter — and 12 staff members.
Earlier this week, Juan Giron was transferred to Rikers Island from an upstate facility after his sentence was vacated because the judge had failed to consider him for youthful offender treatment. After going through intake, where he underwent health screening, he was taken to a dormitory that housed more than two dozen men, their beds lined up next to one another, spaced a few feet apart.
"This is like a shelter. So everybody is out and about. You're talking to people, mingling" Giron said. "Last night, a guy is brought in at around 6 p.m., and a few hours later, two police officers come in with masks and gloves on and try to give the guy a mask. They looked scared, didn't even want to touch him. They told him to pack up, so he packed up and they took him out. It was crazy."
"We asked one of the officers and they said, 'That's the process we are doing now for guys who have the virus,'" Giron said, adding that others who had had contact with the man have not been questioned or notified about his status.
More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States — more than anywhere in the world — and there are growing fears that an outbreak could spread rapidly through a vast network of federal and state prisons, county jails and detention centers.
It's a tightly packed, fluid population that is already grappling with high rates of health problems and, when it comes to the elderly and the intern, elevated risks of serious complications. With limited capacity nationally to test for COVID-19, men and women inside worry that they are last in line when showing flu-like symptoms, meaning that some may be infected without knowing it.
The first positive tests from inside prisons and jails started trickling out just over a week ago, with less than two dozen officers and staff infected in other facilities from California and Michigan to Pennsylvania.
Sherman wrote to Commissioner of New York City's Department of Correction, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, New York's Acting Commissioner, and district attorney asserting that those who are at higher risk from infection, including people over 50 or with underlying health conditions, should be considered for early release. So should people detained for administrative reasons, like parole violations, she wrote.
Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week said prosecutors were working to identify candidates and by Friday night, prosecutors in New York City agreed to release 56 Rikers inmates on their own recognizance.
Bianca Tylek, executive director of the national criminal justice advocacy organization of Worth Rises, said that wouldn't cut it.
"There are nearly 1,500 people incarcerated on Rikers Island for low level offenses or technical parole violations who can be released immediately," she said. "Releasing them would reduce their risk of infection, reduce the risk for all those who remain incarcerated, and reduce the spread of the virus into the public."
A man incarcerated in New York City, meanwhile, became the first confirmed case in the federal prison system.
The man, who is housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, complained of chest pains on Thursday, a few days after he arrived at the facility, the federal Bureau of Prisons told the AP. He was taken to a local hospital and was tested for COVID-19, officials said.
He was discharged from the hospital on Friday and returned to the jail, where he was immediately placed in isolation, the agency said, adding medical and psychiatric staff were visiting him routinely.
Others housed with the man are also being quarantined, along with staff members who may have had contact with him.
There have been two positive cases among BOP staff members: an employee who works at an administrative office in Grand Prairie, Texas, and another employee who works in Leavenworth, Kansas, but who officials said did not have contact with inmates since becoming symptomatic.
The Bureau of Prisons has temporarily halted visitation at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the U.S., including both social and legal visitation, though officials have said some exceptions could be made for legal visits.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and even death.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases may take three to six weeks to recover.
Governor of the U.S. state of New York Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday that a total of 10,356 people in the state had tested positive for novel coronavirus, jumping 3,254 compared with the previous day.
The Empire State has thus become the first state in the country that reported over 10,000 COVID-19 cases, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University.
The governor said the increase of confirmed cases demonstrated the scale of testing in the state.
"We are taking more tests in New York than any place else," said Cuomo. "The more tests you take, the more positives you will find."
A total of 45,437 tests had been done in the state as of Saturday morning, while California did 23,200 tests and Washington state did 23,343, said Cuomo.
He said that New York City, the most populous city in the country, has become the hotspot of COVID-19, with over 6,200 cases, increasing 1,803 cases overnight.
The governor also noted that 55 percent of people who have tested positive in New York state are between the ages of 18 and 49.
"Young people aren't invincible. You can get this and you can give it to someone older you love," he said on Twitter.
On Friday, Cuomo announced that a mandate, which requires people working in non-essential businesses to stay at home, will take effect Sunday night.
The governor asked the public to "remain indoors to the greatest extent" to protect their health. Non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size and for any reason should be canceled and the use of public transit should be limited.
Any businesses violating the order would be fined and forced to close, while the state has no plan to fine individuals who violate the regulations.
On Friday night, U.S. President Donald Trump declared New York state "a major disaster" area due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement issued by the White House.
The declaration would bring in federal funding to the state for fighting the pandemic, including crisis counseling for affected individuals, direct federal assistance and other emergency protective measures, according to the statement.
The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide topped 300,000 as of 6 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Saturday (2200 GMT), according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University
The fresh figure reached 303,816 cases with 12,950 deaths, the CSSE said.
Outside China, the countries that reported over 10,000 cases include Italy, Spain, the United States, Germany, Iran and France. Italy suffered the most deaths from the disease, which stood at 4,825 as of Saturday afternoon, according to the CSSE.
It took around three days for the total number to jump from 200,000 to 300,000. Over 160 countries and regions have reported COVID-19 cases so far, the CSSE said