One Year of COVID: Politics of Vaccination

In March 2021, one year after the outbreak of COVID-19, Iran was just starting its vaccination campaign, which began on February 9, 2021. But most Iranians were warned that they would have to wait until early 2022 due to a vaccine shortage. Over the first twelve months of the pandemic, nearly 1.6 million Iranians were infected and more than 59,000 died. Iran experienced three surges of infections in 2020 – in the spring, summer and fall – that were each deadlier than the previous wave.

Daily COVID cases in Iran

Related Material: Iran Struggles with COVID-19 in 2020

Iran had a vaccine shortage for several reasons, both political and scientific. One setback was self-inflicted. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned all vaccine imports from the United States and Britain, which produced the first viable vaccines. “They’re completely untrustworthy,” he said in a televised speech on January 8, 2021. “It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” But Iran also lagged behind other industrialized nations in developing its own vaccine. The government acknowledged that the domestic vaccine, CovIran Barekat, might not be ready until late April 2021.
Daily COVID deaths in Iran

In the interim, Tehran turned to Russia, China and Cuba. Russia and China provided hundreds of thousands of doses — Sputnik V and Sinopharm — and Cuban medical companies began joint vaccine testing with Soberana 2. Iran also purchased 16.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. Humanitarian and medical supplies are exempt from U.S. sanctions. Iran made payment through a Swiss bank. 

The government prioritized doses for the elderly, health workers, the disabled and war veterans. To boost public confidence in the vaccine, the first dose of the Russian vaccine went to Parsa Namaki, the son of Health Minister Saeed Namaki on February 9, 2021. But President Hassan Rouhani warned that achieving herd immunity would take a “long time” and called on Iranians to remain vigilant in the meantime. “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 as the rollout began.

Total Coronavirus Cases

The government also warned about a potential fourth wave of the pandemic after a mutated strain – which originated in Britain and was more infectious than the first strain – was detected in Iran. Health officials said a new surge could be the deadliest yet. “Hard days are beginning for us and you must prepare to fight the most uncontrollable mutated virus,” Namaki said on February 13.

Total COVID deaths in Iran

The government took steps to stem the spread of the mutation. On February 28, the government banned flights from 32 countries on four continents, including Europe, Africa, South America and Central America. Rouhani prohibited domestic travel during Nowruz to cities most impacted by the virus; he urged Iranians to stay at home during the Persian New Year. “The start of the vaccination drive in the country should not lead to people considering the situation as normal,” he said on March 6. Rouhani also warned that social distancing measures should continue “for at least one year.” The following is a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran in 2021.

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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. 

 

Week 48: January 10 – January 16

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 government warned.

On January 11, schools in "blue" and "yellow" regions where coronavirus cases were the lowest would reopen on January 20, the Education Ministry said. The directive applied to primary and secondary schools with fewer than 50 students. Vocational schools could resume in-person classes capped at 10 or fewer students. 

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

Health Minister Namaki (center) tours an IRGC mobile hospital
Health Minister Namaki (center) tours an IRGC mobile hospital

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

250,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine arrive in Tehran
250,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine arrive in Tehran

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."

On March 3, the government pledged that it would vaccinate Iranians aged 65 and older by July at the latest. The next priority group after the elderly were Iranians between the ages of 16 and 64 with underlying conditions.

On March 4, Iran received a third shipment of Sputnik V vaccines from Russia. Some 200,000 doses arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.

On March 5, the government said that one million doses obtained through the WHO’s COVAX program would arrive between March 18 and March 28. Iranians older than 80 and those suffering from underlying illnesses would be prioritized for vaccination.

On March 6, President Rouhani banned travel during Nowruz to all red- or orange-zone cities and urged Iranians to avoid travel in general during the Persian New Year. “The start of the vaccination drive in the country should not lead to people considering the situation as normal,” he said at a meeting of the National Coronavirus Task Force. Rouhani also said that social distancing measures should continue “for at least one year from now due to the many mutations of the virus.”

 

Week 56: March 7 – March 13

On March 7, the health ministry said that South Korea would import 3.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On March 9, inoculations using the domestically produced CovIran Barekat vaccine would begin in May, the chairman of Setad said. He assured the public that there was a sufficient supply of vaccines for the next two-and-a-half months.

On March 10, Iran's Food and Drug Administration issued a permit allowing emergency use of China's Sinopharm vaccine. China sent 250,000 doses of the vaccine to Iran on February 28. 

On March 11, Iran received 100,000 doses of Cuba's Soberana 2 vaccine, Fars News Agency reported. Tehran had previously allowed Cuba to conduct last-stage clinical trials on 50,000 Iranian volunteers in exchange for doses of the vaccine. Iran also received 150,000 doses of Covaxin, India's vaccine and would receive another 375,000 doses the following week. 

On March 13, Rouhani urged Iranians to take special precautions during Nowruz this year. "Considering that we are still dealing with this disease and have not yet reached a reassuring and stable point, this year we must hold the visits with masks and without shaking hands," he said. 

 

Week 57: March 14 – March 20

Hamed Fakhrizadeh receives the first dose of the Fakhravac vaccine
Hamed Fakhrizadeh receives the first dose of the Fakhravac vaccine

On March 15, the government began mass production of the CovIran Barekat vaccine. Its goal was to initially produce 3 million doses a month and then to scale up to 12 to 15 million doses per month by June, the chairman of Setad said

On March 16, Iran initiated human trials for a third domestically-produced vaccine, Fakhravac. The vaccine was named after assassinated nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and developed by his former employer, the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. Hamed Fakhrizadeh, Mohsen's son, received the first dose at at an unveiling ceremony in Tehran. The government planned to test the vaccine on 20,000 volunteers. 

On March 18, the government extended its ban on flights to and from Britain until May 1. Iran's Civil Aviation Organization had first suspended flights to Britain on December 22, 2020, to prevent the spread of the mutated strain of the coroanvirus. Flights to and from Iraq remained suspended until the end of March. 

On March 19, the government assured Iranians that no government official had skipped the line to be vaccinated. President Rouhani's chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, said that only those in priority groups - such as healthcare workers, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions - had received the vaccine.

 

Week 58: March 21 – March 27

On March 25, Iran would receive 100,000 additional doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, Tehran's ambassador in Moscow said. Russia had already sent Iran more than 400,000 doses of the vaccine since February 4. 

On March 27, Iran was in talks to purchase 10 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, Tehran's ambassador to Moscow said. Russia had previously agreed to sell one million doses of its vaccine to Iran.

China pledged to help Iran fight the coronavirus pandemic with additional medical equipment and medicine. "We will provide more COVID-19 vaccine to Iran, and Iran is our priority in this regard," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Tehran. 

 

Week 59: March 28 – April 3

On March 30, Iran said that it would begin mass production of the Fakhra vaccine by late May. Mass production of CovIran Barekat, Iran's first domestically developed vaccine, began on March 15. 

Health officials warned that widespread travel during Nowruz may have triggered “A fourth coronavirus wave has definitely begun in many parts of the west and center of the country and is advancing towards the east,” a Health Ministry spokeswoman said.

On March 31, the health ministry declared that it had vaccinated 80 percent of health care workers who dealt with coronavirus patients. 

On April 3, President Rouhani warned that the fourth wave of the pandemic had begun in two provinces. "If we do not observe health protocols, this wave will enter other provinces as well," he said at a meeting of the National Coronavirus Task Force. Rouhani promised that the government would prioritize developing and importing vaccines but urged Iranians to quarantine themselves at the first sign of illness. “It is not acceptable for someone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 to go to work or attend meetings, or worse, to travel," he said. 

The government restricted travel to and from Turkey to help curb the spread of the mutated coronavirus. All land and air travel was suspended for a week. Iranian citizens living in Turkey could return home if they tested negative. 

 

Week 60: April 4 – April 10

On April 4, the Health Ministry classified Tehran a "red-zone," high-risk city as COVID-19 infections surged in the capital. Hospitalizations increased 37 percent compared to the previous week. Local officials called for tightened health and safety regulations to prevent the further spread of the virus. "What is evident to us for now is that the fourth wave of the pandemic has hit Tehran,” Nader Tavakkoli, an official with the provincial coronavirus task force, said.

On April 5, more than 700,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine - purchased through COVAX - arrived in Iran. The vaccines were produced in South Korea and transported via the Netherlands to comply with the supreme leader's ban on vaccine imports from Britain. 

IranAir, the national airliner, announced a special flight on April 11 to bring Iranians living in Britain back home. All passengers older than eight years of age would need to present negative COVID-19 tests before boarding the flight. 

On April 6, Iran extended travel restrictions to Iraq for two additional weeks. 

On April 7, Iran broke its record for daily infections as new cases reached nearly 21,000. All provincial capitals were categorized as "red zones" with the highest risk of infection. Many had been classified as "blue" or in the lowest risk category during Nowruz, Tasnim News Agency reported. The Health Ministry announced that 85 percent of the country was in a "red" or "orange" zone. 

On April 10, the government ordered a 10-day lockdown in 23 of Iran's 31 provinces. All businesses, schools, theater and sports facilities were forced to shutdown. President Rouhani blamed the mutated COVID-19 variant originating in Britain for the spike in cases. The president threatened strict punishments for Iranians who broke health and safety protocols. "Violation of quarantine by infected people is very dangerous and must be dealt with legally," he said. 

 

Week 61: April 11 – April 17

On April 11, the government extended the ban on travel to Iraq until April 20. Only Iranians with education, healthcare, investment or business visas could cross the border. 

On April 13, Iran would begin mass producing the CovIran Barekat vaccine on April 21, the chairman of Setad said. Iran would prioritize domestic vaccinations before exporting doses abroad, he added. 

On April 15, Iran will purchase 60 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, the Iranian ambassador to Moscow said. The doses are scheduled to arrive in Iran between May and November, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. Iran received another 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by the Red Cross Society of China, the government said.  

 

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