The first case of the Coronavirus has been confirmed in Georgia, Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze has announced.
In a late-night briefing on Tuesday, the minister said that national health authorities had identified the virus in a 50-year old Georgian national who had travelled to Iran and entered Georgia from Azerbaijan.
Amiran Gamkrelidze, Director of Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control, said that the symptoms of the infected person were mild and urged the public not to panic. The person has been placed in the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Tbilisi, he added.
Gamkrelidze insisted that Georgia was ‘ready to deal with a wave of infections, if that happens’. He said that infectious disease hospitals in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, and Zugdidi had around 120 isolation wards.
Tikaradze said that ‘fully equipped’ customs officers who came into contact with the man had also been quarantined and were ‘under control’.
She said they had received confirmation of the virus from the Lugar laboratory in Tbilisi, which from early February has provided rapid diagnostic tests for Georgia, ending the need to send samples abroad.
Georgian authorities halted flights to and from Iran on 23 February, with the exception of planes flying into Georgia to evacuate Georgian citizens.
The Health Minister announced on Tuesday evening that this would remain in place for at least two weeks. Transit coming by land originating from Iran would also be banned from entering, she added.
The country earlier put in place extra checks on those travelling by land, examining anyone who had visited Iran during the previous two weeks for symptoms of the virus.
Iran has seen one of the largest outbreaks of the virus so far. According to Iranian officials, 16 people have died and 95 have been infected across Iran, Reuters reported on 25 February.
Later that day, Iranian officials announced that deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi had tested positive for the virus and been placed in quarantine.
Armenia closed its land border with Iran and suspended flights on Monday, with the exception of cargo transit. Azerbaijan has so far kept the border open.
[Read more: Armenia closes border with Iran as South Caucasus braces for coronavirus]
On 24 February, the NCDC advised the public to refrain from travelling to China, Iran, South Korea, and northern Italy, unless absolutely necessary.
Several hours before the announcement, former Health Minister and member of the opposition European Georgia party Zurab Chiaberashvili wrote on Facebook that if the virus were identified in Georgia, the government should not be blamed for something ‘beyond their control’.
He also urged the government to approach the problem in a more complex way, including non-medical considerations.
Worries about xenophobia
Before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed, Georgian health authorities expressed concern about panic among the public over the virus.
On 24, NCDC’s head Amiran Gamkrelidze urged media not to call the disease ‘fatal’ or describe it as a ‘killer’.
Earlier, Paata Imnadze, Gamkrelidze’s deputy, blasted Georgia’s ‘shameful’ media on his Facebook page for ‘propagating xenophobia’ leading to two Chinese citizens being targeted with ‘bullying’.
Imnadze was referring to an incident on 24 February in which passengers on a train travelling from Tbilisi to Batumi refused to travel with a Chinese couple, claiming that they had exhibited ‘symptoms of illness’.
The couple was taken away by ambulance but tested negative for the coronavirus.
Georgia’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was also accused of xenophobia by several liberal outlets in Georgia for demanding on 30 January that no Chinese citizen ‘set foot on Georgian soil’ as long as the outbreak persists.