The daily newspaper Jahane Sanat quoted Mohammad Reza Mahboobfar, an epidemiologist who the paper said had worked on Iran’s pandemic response, as saying the true number of Covid-19 cases and deaths could be 20 times higher than the number reported by the Health Ministry.
The expert said the virus had been detected in the country a month earlier than 19 February, when authorities reported the first confirmed case, but the announcement was held back.
He claimed authorities had withheld the information until after commemorations for the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and parliamentary elections earlier in February.
“The administration resorted to secrecy for political and security reasons,” he said, adding that officials only provided “engineered statistics” to the public.
Mohammad Reza Sadi, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, told the official IRNA news agency on Monday that authorities had closed his publication, which began publishing in 2004, following the comments.
Mr Mahboobfar also criticised testing efforts and warned of the possibility of a renewed outbreak next month as universities hold entrance exams and people mark major Shiite holidays.
Sima Sadat Lari, a Health Ministry spokesperson, rejected the allegations made against the government and said the expert had played no role in the official response to the pandemic.
“The Health Ministry is not a political body and health of people is its main priority,” she said, according to IRNA.
There have been more than 328,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 18,616 deaths since the start of the pandemic in Iran, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre.
Earlier this month, an investigation into official government figures concluded that Iran’s actual death toll was three times higher than the reported numbers.
The BBC’s Persian service said it had been given details of daily hospital admissions, which showed at least 451,000 people had contracted coronavirus and almost 42,000 people had died.
Although the Iranian government rejected the BBC’s report, the accuracy of official statistics have been questioned throughout the pandemic and some local authorities have reported discrepancies between data at regional and national levels.
Authorities in Iran have also come under heavy criticism in recent months over their reluctance to impose sweeping public health restrictions like those seen in other parts of the world.
Additional reporting by AP