Iran may have lied about its coronavirus death toll, with almost triple the number of people dying during the pandemic than reported.
The Government’s own records show almost 42,000 people had died of Covid-19 by July 20, compared to the 14,405 reported by the health ministry.
And cases had reached 451,024 — not the 278,827 officially reported by July 20.
The stark numbers come from an anonymous source who leaked official documents to the BBC to ‘shed light’ on the truth.
It shows that the first Covid-19 death was on January 22, almost a month before the first case was officially reported on February 19.
Alongside China, Iran has previously been accused of fiddling its numbers to cover up the true scale of its coronavirus crisis.
Although the number of cases had reportedly dipped since March, Iran has seen a surge in cases over the last few weeks. Yesterday health chiefs in the nation in the Middle East recorded 2,600 cases — the highest daily toll for almost a month.
Iran has still been the worst-hit country in the Middle East during the coronavirus pandemic, based on its health ministry’s data.
It says there have been a total of 309,437 cases and 17,190 fatalities since Covid-19 first arrived in February.
It suggests Iran has the 10th highest death toll, and the 26th highest death toll per million people.
But Iran would shoot up to one of the worst five countries hit by the coronavirus, if the leaked data is proven to be true.
Iranian doctors had reportedly been warning of Covid-19 as early as December 2019, when the coronavirus was first discovered in China.
It wasn’t until February 19 when two cases were reported in Qom, a holy city in the north. Both were believed to been related to travel to China.
According to the BBC, government documents shows the first Covid-19 death in the country was recorded on January 22.
By the time officials had acknowledged the first two cases of the coronavirus, leaked data shows 52 people had already died.
Tehran, the capital, has the highest number of deaths. Some 8,120 people have died after testing positive for the disease or having similar symptoms.
For comparison, data from the health ministry says there have only been 5,000 cases diagnosed in the capital — which is home to 8.7million people.
The city of Qom — 90 miles (145km) south-west of Tehran — has been hit worse proportionally, with 1,419 deaths — one Covid-19 death for every 1,000 people.
The leaked data shows that cases and deaths rose at the same rate reported by the health ministry at the time.
But the initial rise of deaths is far steeper than health ministry figures and by mid-March it was five times what was reported.
The health ministry has said that the country’s reports to the World Health Organization are ‘transparent’ and ‘far from any deviations’.
The source that sent the data to the BBC said they shared it in order to ‘shed light on truth’ and to end ‘political games’ over the epidemic.
It includes details of daily admissions to hospitals across Iran, including names, age, gender, symptoms, date and length of periods spent in hospital, and underlying conditions patients might have.
The huge gap in the figures suggests the Iranian government attempted to deliberately cover up the true size of the crisis, as opposed to there being a slight level of inaccurate counting seen in many countries.
For example in the UK, there are doubts over the government’s death tally of 46,201 because of the way deaths are counted, which is currently under investigation. But the total is thought to be inflated only by around 1,000.
There have also been regular claims that China has not been transparent about exactly how bad the Covid-19 outbreak was there, which experts say influenced other countries.
China has reported relatively low numbers of cases and deaths — 84,428 and 4,634 — despite the virus emerging there weeks before it did in any other country and months before the crisis really hit Europe and America.
The Chinese city of Wuhan was where the virus first took hold back in December, but since then various aspects of Beijing’s information has been questioned and even discredited.
One study suggested the true death toll was 14 times higher based on activity at crematoriums.
Since the outbreak of the virus in Iran, many observers have expressed concern about the official numbers including political groups and doctors working on the front line.
In the early days of the pandemic, anonymous physicians who spoke with the New York Times said they believed the first case of Covid in Iran was in December, in the city of Gorgan.
They said in the coming weeks as the cases mounted and many of the patients started dying, hospital officials told staff ‘to keep quiet’.
And by the time the first cases were reported, there were ‘hundreds’ of ill patients in the hospital in Gorgan, and so many deaths ‘that a local cemetery hired a backhoe to dig graves’.
Doctors have told the BBC that the Iranian health ministry has been under pressure from security and intelligence bodies inside Iran to suppress numbers.
Dr Pouladi, a pseudonym, said the ministry ‘was in denial’ and that the position of the security services ‘was not to admit to the existence of coronavirus in Iran’.
He added: ‘Initially they did not have testing kits and when they got them, they weren’t used widely enough.’
It is believed officials downplayed the size of the outbreak in fear it would reduce the turnout to election vote on February 21.
Dr Nouroldin Pirmoazzen, a former member of Iran’s parliament who also was an official at the health ministry, said the Iranian government was ‘anxious and fearful of the truth’ when coronavirus hit Iran.
He said: ‘The government was afraid that the poor and the unemployed would take to the streets.’
The country had already been battling difficult times before Covid-19 arrived, including that Iranian armed forces mistakenly fired missiles at a Ukrainian airliner only minutes after it had taken off from Tehran’s international airport.
All 176 people on board were killed, which didn’t come to light for three days because authorities tried to cover it up.
Data which has now been thrown into question suggests that Covid-19 cases reached their lowest by mid-May, but 800 people were still being diagnosed every day.
Iran started to relax its restrictions in mid-April after the number of infections declined.
A new peak of cases was reported on 4 June (3,574) and the country has struggled to drive infections down since then.
Health ministry spokesman Sima Sadat Lari confirmed on Sunday that since late June daily infections have been on a ‘rising trajectory’.
Iran’s chief epidemiologist at the country’s health ministry, Mohammad-Mehdi Gouya, claimed the main reason for the rising numbers is because increased testing was identifying more people who have only mild symptoms.