A top Iranian military official is giving voice to a conspiracy theory regarding the coronavirus amid an outbreak in the Islamic republic that has killed more than 100 people, including an adviser to Iran's supreme leader, and infected more than 3,500, according to official figures.
Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, suggested Thursday that the coronavirus might be an American biological weapon — contradicting experts who say there's no evidence it could be man-made.
"Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle," Salami was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency. "We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological [attack], which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world."
He added: "America should know that if it has done so, it will return to itself."
He provided no evidence to back his unfounded claim.
Salami also said that Iran would contain the coronavirus outbreak "even if it's not America's work."
Last month, U.S. officials said Russian-linked social media accounts were making unfounded claims that Washington was behind the outbreak.
The United States is among the more than 80 countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide. Eleven have died in the United States so far and more than 200 had tested positive as of Thursday.
The outbreak has led to the spread of conspiracy theories on social media and news sites, including claims that the virus originated in a lab linked to China's biowarfare program.
Experts have said repeatedly that there is no indication that the coronavirus could be man-made.
"Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus," Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told The Washington Post on January 29.
Iran hit hard
Salami's remarks came amid warnings by Iranian officials against those spreading rumors and fake stories about the outbreak in Iran.
The head of Iran's cyberpolice, Commander Vahid Majid, said Thursday that 121 people had been summoned for spreading rumors about the coronavirus. He said 190 others had been warned over the phone and told to remove content from social media pages.
"Dealing with those spreading rumors and those publishing fake news is currently one of the most important missions of the cyberpolice," Majid said.
Iran and Italy have the highest death tolls from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged in December.
The coronavirus currently has a fatality rate of about 3.4%, with the elderly and those with underlying health problems dying far more frequently after contracting the virus.
Massud Pezeshkian, a lawmaker and former Iranian health minister, suggested this week that the outbreak in Iran was far more widespread than the government acknowledged, saying many infected citizens had not been identified.
Vice President Masumeh Ebtekar, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi and more than 20 parliament deputies are among those who have tested positive in the country.
Mohammad Mirmohammadi, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, has died from the disease.