Part 5: Iran Struggles to Vaccinate

Iran began vaccinations on February 9, 2021, but most Iranians may have to wait until early 2022 to be vaccinated due to shortages. The government prioritized doses for the elderly, health workers, people with disabilities and war veterans. The first dose went to Parsa Namaki, son of Health Minister Saeed Namaki, to boost public confidence in the vaccine. President Hassan Rouhani warned that achieving herd immunity would take a “long time” and told Iranians to remain vigilant. “Even after the general vaccination, since none of the vaccines is 100 percent effective, it is necessary to follow the health protocols with complete accuracy,” he said on February 6.

Daily Cases

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One major setback was self-inflicted. On January 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned all vaccine imports from the United States and Britain. “They’re completely untrustworthy,” he said in a televised speech. “It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” But Iran’s efforts to develop a homemade vaccine lagged behind the rest of the world. The government said that its domestic vaccine, CovIran Barekat, would not be ready until late April 2021.

Daily Deaths

Tehran turned to Moscow and Havana – two of its closest allies – for help. It approved import of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and began joint vaccine testing with Cuban medical companies. Iran also purchased 16.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. Funds were routed through a Swiss bank and were exempt from U.S. sanctions.

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The vaccination campaign began after Iran had made significant headway on containing the third COVID-19 wave that crested in late 2020 and began to ebb in January. Daily deaths in Iran from COVID-19 peaked at 486 on November 17, while daily infections peaked at 14,051 on November 27. The number of cases decreased significantly in December after the government imposed nationwide lockdowns and travel bans between major cities. By January 2021, the number of daily cases had stabilized between 5,500 and 6,500 cases, and the number of deaths had plummeted below 100 per day.

Total Cases

A new coronavirus variant – originating from Britain and more infectious than prior strains – was detected in Iran on January 10. Health officials urged the population to adhere to strict health protocols to prevent its spread. On January 30, the government imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine on all travelers from Europe. “The new virus is not restricted to Europe and can spread in any climate, even if we control all the ways,” Health Minister Namaki said. A fourth wave of COVID-19 could inflict even greater hardship than previous waves, he warned.

Total Deaths

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Timeline of COVID-19 in 2021

Week 47: January 3 – January 9

On January 5, Iran had purchased 16.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, the Central Bank announced. Funds were routed through a Swiss bank and were exempted from U.S. sanctions.

Khamenei banned U.S. and U.K. vaccines
Khamenei banned U.S. and U.K. vaccines on January 8
On January 8, Supreme Leader Khamenei banned all vaccine imports from the United States and Britain. “They’re completely untrustworthy,” he said in a televised speech. “It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” The prohibition would bar Iran from importing foreign vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. Khamenei said that Iran would obtain vaccines from “other reliable places,” but did not specify from where.

On January 9, the health ministry said that Iran would receive Cuba’s most advanced coronavirus vaccine. Havana would conduct last-stage clinical trials of its Soberana 2 vaccine on 50,000 Iranian volunteers. “This synergy will enable both countries to advance more rapidly in the immunization against the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute tweeted. 

On January 10, four cases of the coronavirus variant from Britain were detected in Iran, health officials said. An Iranian family living in Europe had visited Iran and tested positive. The mutated virus was 70 percent more transmissible than previous variants, the British government warned.

 

Week 48: January 10 – January 16

On January 12, President Rouhani assured Iranians that the government would have enough vaccines to meet domestic demand. “Millions of doses of vaccine have been purchased in that way that would be supplied and the vaccination will be carried out,” he said. Five new cases of the coronavirus variant from Britain were detected in Iran, the health ministry said. Ministry spokesperson Sima Sadat Lari warned that a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections was possible and urged Iranians to continue following strict health protocols.

 

Week 49: January 17 – January 23

On January 23, vaccines would be administered to high-risk populations within weeks, Rouhani announced. “Foreign vaccines are a necessity until local vaccines are available,” he said in televised remarks. Three domestic vaccines - Barekat, Pasteur and Razi – would not be ready until the spring or early summer.

No Iranian cities remained in the “red” zone, the health ministry said. But widespread violations of social distancing and lockdown measures continued. “There were reports from different cities of numerous cases of failure to comply with the protocols,” Alireza Raisi, the national coronavirus taskforce spokesperson, said.

 

Week 50: January 24 – January 30

On January 24, Health Minister Namaki recommended strict controls on travel between Iranian cities to prevent spread of the coronavirus variant from Britain. “The new virus is not restricted to Europe and can spread in any climate, even if we control all the ways,” Namaki said. A fourth wave of COVID-19 infections would inflict even greater hardship than previous waves, he warned.

An Iranian doctor with the Sputnik V vaccine
An Iranian doctor with the Sputnik V vaccine

On January 26, Iran approved imports of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. “In the near future, we hope to be able to purchase it, as well as start joint production,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at a press conference in Moscow. The Russian vaccine was the first foreign vaccine approved for import after Khamenei banned vaccines imported from the United States and Britain on January 8. Iran would begin vaccinating high risk individuals within two weeks, government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said.

Tehran urged President Joe Biden to unfreeze Iranian assets and loosen sanctions to purchase medical and humanitarian goods. “Since [Biden’s] administration claims not to be anti-science like the previous one ... one expects it to free the transfer of Iran’s own foreign exchange resources to fight the coronavirus and for health and food, and lift banking sanctions quickly,” Rabiei said.

On January 28, the Food and Drug Administration of Iran granted emergency authorization for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. The agency was evaluating other vaccines made in India and China for approval, a spokesperson said.

On January 29, compliance with health safety protocols in Tehran fell from 82 percent to 39 percent, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said. The Ministry warned that a “decline in observance of health protocols could lead to a new wave of the disease,” state radio VIRI reported.

On January 30, Iran imposed a two-week quarantine on all travelers arriving from Europe. Even travelers who tested negative would be required to quarantine. Pharmaceutical companies pledged to produce between one and two million does of the homegrown vaccine, known as CovIran Barekat, by the end of March. The Iranian vaccine was effective on the U.K. variant of the virus, health ministry officials said. “Tests have shown that the blood plasma of the people who were injected with the vaccine in human trials is capable of completely defusing the mutated virus of the English corona[virus],” said Hassan Jalili, who oversees production of CovIran Barekat.

 

Week 51: January 31 – February 6

Sputnik V vaccine in cold storage
The Sputnik V vaccine in cold storage

On February 1, the government said that vaccinations for the elderly, health workers, people with disabilities and war veterans would begin in spring 2021. But the government also warned that most Iranians would have to wait until February or March 2022 to be vaccinated.

On February 2, the government said that its domestic vaccine, CovIran Barekat, would be ready by late-April. It planned to produce 12 to 14 million doses each month starting in May.

On February 3, the health ministry said that Iran would receive 4.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in mid-February. The vaccines were secured through COVAX, the World Health Organization’s vaccine distribution program.

On February 4, Iran received 500,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, the first foreign coronavirus vaccine approved for domestic use. The shipments arrived at Imam Khomeini Airport from Moscow via Mahan Airlines.

On February 5, the second shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine would arrive within two weeks and a third shipment would arrive by February 28, the Iranian ambassador to Moscow said. New shipments would arrive every two weeks after that, he added.

 

Week 52: February 7 – February 13

Namaki's son receives the first vaccine shot
Namaki's son receives the first vaccine shot

On February 7, Health Minister Namaki said that vaccinations for medical workers would begin on February 9. Doctors and nurse in intensive care units were the top priority. President Rouhani warned that achieving herd immunity would take a “long time” and told Iranians to remain vigilant. “Even after the general vaccination, since none of the vaccines is 100 percent effective, it is necessary to follow the health protocols with complete accuracy,” he said. Iran finished the first phase of human trials for CovIran Barekat, its domestically-produced vaccine. The government would test a second homegrown vaccine, Razi CovPaz, on human volunteers in the coming days.

On February 9, Iran began inoculating health care workers using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Health Minister Namaki’s son was the first person injected, a move designed to boost public confidence in the vaccine. Intensive care unit staff at more than 600 hospitals were also vaccinated.

On February 11, Iran agreed to produce and export Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, Tehran's ambassador to Moscow said. An Iranian delegation visited Moscow to better understand how the Russian vaccine was manufactured.

On February 13, President Rouhani urged stricter testing and quarantine measures at the border to prevent a fourth wave of the coronavirus. The health ministry declared that nine cities -- all in Khuzestan province -- were high-risk "red" zones. “Hard days are beginning for us and you must prepare to fight the most uncontrollable mutated virus which is unfortunately infecting the country,” Health Minister Namaki said.

 

Week 53: February 14 – February 20

On February 17, Iran claimed that its homegrown vaccine was"100 percent" effective against the British variant of the coronavirus. The government planned to open its first domestic vaccine factory within two weeks. The factory would be able to produce three million doses of CovIran Barekat each month. The government also authorized three other coronavirus vaccines for import: one from India, one from Russia and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Screening for COVID-19 in Khuzestan province
Screening for COVID-19 in Khuzestan province

More than 3,000 doctors and nurses have left Iran since the start of the pandemic, Iran's medical professional organization reported. "When physicians face social, job and welfare tensions, and job insecurity on a daily basis, these all lead them to lose their motivation," said Mohammad Jahangiri, a senior official with the Medical Council of Iran. "When we don’t create motivations and simultaneously there is a need for doctors in other countries, they leave the country."

On February 18, Iran identified 21 cases of the British coronavirus variant. The patients infected were from Tehran, Alborz, Qazvin and Khuzestan provinces. Iran's U.N. envoy called the virus the "common enemy of humanity" and urged wealthier nations to donate vaccine surpluses to poorer nations. “There is no other option but to achieve success in containing the virus,” Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi told the Security Council. 

On February 19, the government prohibited in-person concerts and cultural events to stem the spread of a new coronavirus variant. "All the concerts can only stream online,” Deputy Health Minister Mohsen Farhadi said. The number of foreign visitors to Iran decreased by 94 percent in 2020, the tourism ministry said. More than 1.5 million jobs had been lost in the travel sector due to the coronavirus.

On February 20, Iran closed its borders with Iraq to prevent the spread of the mutated COVID-19 strain. “The main source of infection ... with the British coronavirus in Khuzestan province were travelers who came from Iraq,” Namaki said. The government closed four entry points at Kileh, Piranshahr, Chazzabeh and Shalamcheh. 

 

Week 54: February 21 – February 27

On February 21, Iran claimed that its domestically-produced vaccine was highly effective against the virus. “Preliminary results show that about 90 percent of the people who received two doses of the vaccine exhibit evidence of immunity,” Mohamad Reza Salehi, who heads clinical trials for CovIran Barekat, said. 

On February 22, Tehran and Tokyo discussed using frozen Iranian financial assets in Japanese banks to purchase vaccines. The Japanese ambassador in Tehran suggested the move during a meeting with Central Bank of Iran Governor Abdonnaser Hemmati, state media reported.

On February 24, Iran detected 13 new cases of the mutated coronavirus: five in Tehran province, seven in Hormozgan province and one in West Azerbaijan province. A total of 112 patients had been infected with COVID-19 variant and eight had died, the government said. The government closed a fifth border crossing with Iraq at Mehran.

On February 25, infections among children were up 10 percent since last year, the government said. “Two age groups, those under 10 and above 70 are considered high-risk groups," Alireza Zali, head of the Coronavirus Taskforce of Tehran, said. "They need to strictly abide by health protocols.” Iran would import four million vaccine doses by late March, the health ministry said

On February 27, President Rouhani warned that travel restrictions would remain in place through the Nowruz holidays, which will begin on March 21. The government encouraged Iranians to stay home and abide by health guidelines. 

 

Week 55: February 28 – March 6

On February 28, Iran received 250,000 doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine, the second foreign vaccine imported by Tehran. The government called the donation a "new symbol of friendship" between Tehran and Beijing. “Cooperation in containing the coronavirus once again proved the significance of strategic relations between the two countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted in Mandarin. 

The government banned flights from 32 countries to stem the spread of the mutated coronavirus. The list included countries in Africa, South America and Central America that the health ministry had deemed "high risk."

 

Photo credits: All photos via Tasnim News Agency (CC by 4.0)
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