A customer talks with a Pharmacist at a drugstore in downtown Tehran on February 25. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Iran says the new coronavirus has killed 26 people amid 245 confirmed cases in the Islamic Republic, a significant increase in the number of known cases.

Iran Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour gave the new toll on Thursday in a televised news conference. He said the large number in new cases came from more labs now testing for the virus.

He said there could be other large increases in the coming days.

The hardest-hit among the provinces remained the one home to the holy Shiite city of Qom, with 63 confirmed cases.

Experts fear Iran is underreporting the number of cases of the new virus as cases across the Gulf countries have emerged in recent days linked back to the Islamic Republic.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday halted travel to Mecca and Madina over fears about a viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage, a move that came as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.

The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba. The decision also affected travel to Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Madina. Authorities also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus.

The decision showed the worry about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia.

The epicentre in the Mideast's most-affected country, Iran, appears to be in the holy Shiite city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine.

Iran now has the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak began.

There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.

"Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,'' the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision. "We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.''

Since it emerged in December in central China, the new coronavirus has sickened 82,000 people globally, with more than 2,700 deaths.

Experts are concerned Iran may be underreporting cases and deaths, given the illness' rapid spread from Iran across the Gulf. For example, Iran still has not confirmed any cases in Mashhad, even though a number of cases reported in Kuwait are linked to the Iranian city.

In Bahrain, which confirmed 33 cases as of Thursday morning, authorities halted all flights to Iraq and Lebanon. It separately extended a 48-hour ban over flights from Dubai and Sharjah, through which infected travellers reached the island kingdom.

Kuwait has also confirmed on Thursday 43 cases all coming from Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there were no immediate plans to quarantine cities but acknowledged it may take "one, two or three weeks'' to get control of the virus in Iran.

As Iran's 80 million people find themselves increasingly isolated in the region by the outbreak, the country's sanctions-battered economy saw its currency slump to its lowest level against the US dollar in a year on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Health Ministry on Thursday announced the first coronavirus case in the capital, Baghdad, bringing the overall number of cases reported in the country to six. All have been linked to Iran.

Iraq has taken drastic measures to stem the spread, including ordering schools and universities closed for 10 days, starting Thursday.

The government also banned public gatherings and ordered the closures of cinemas, cafes, clubs and other social forums for the same period. It wasn't immediately clear whether the ban of public gatherings would include anti-government protest sites such as Baghdad's landmark Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have been staging a sit-in for months.

This came as one new case in Israel brought the total in that country to three.