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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian state television said Saturday that three Iranian citizens have died after they were infected with omicron, the new, more easily spread variant of the coronavirus.

Iran first detected the omicron variant in mid-December but this was the first time fatalities were reported. The TV report quoted Mohammad Hashemi, an official in the country’s health ministry, as also saying that a fourth person who was a confirmed case of omicron was in critical condition. He did not elaborate.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed more than 132,000 people in Iran, the worst fatality rate in the Middle East. On Aug. 24 alone, 709 people died of the illness. The number of deaths has decreased in recent months due to the vaccination, experts say.

Iran has stepped up vaccinations in recent weeks and now has reported that more than 53 million Iranians have received their second shot, and 12 million have received the third shot or booster. Iran has a population of about 85 million. When hard-line President Ebrahin Raisi took over in late August, only 7 million Iranians had been vaccinated.

Iran mostly uses the China-made Sinopharm vaccine, though the Russian Sputnik-V and the vaccine made by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca are also in use.

The omicron variant has already become dominant in many countries. Though it can infect those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus, early studies show it is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant. Vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.