The first case of Omicron variant of coronavirus was detected in Iran almost three weeks ago. While countries with good access to testing testing report that the number of Omicron infections is exploding, Iran’s Ministry of Health had confirmed just 43 cases by December 30.
The Ministry omitted to mention the number of tests that were specifically conducted to detect Omicron, meaning citizens and experts are still in the dark as to the extent of the spread.
At the same time, the very same Iranian company that made sustained unfulfilled promises about its early Covid-19 vaccines now claims that it has succeeded in developing “the first rapid Omicron detection kit in the world”.
Omicron in Iran: What We Know So Far
The Islamic Republic confirmed Omicron had reached Iran on December 19, but as testing has been so low in Iran, it may well have been earlier. Available data indicates the new strain is up to four times as transmissible as the Delta variant, which is thought to have claimed the lives of at least 90,000 Iranians during the fifth wave of the epidemic in 2021.
On December 29, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned that a combination of the Delta and Omicron variants was driving a “tsunami” of Covid-19 cases around the world. Iranian health officials have also warned of an “explosion” of cases if the spread is not controlled.
Global data shows that in many countries the Omicron variant has already raced out of control. But on December 29, Mohammad Hashemi, head of Health Ministry’s public relations, tweeted that just 43 cases of infection with the new strain had been identified in Iran: 17 in Tehran, five in Mashhad, five in Hormozgan and the rest in the nine cities of Babol, Isfahan, Urmia, Alborz, Shiraz, Arak, Bushehr, Qom and Yazd.
A Dearth of Test Kits
Mina, a nurse at a hospital in Tehran, tells IranWire that the situation at her workplace is manageable for now. “At this moment, the conditions are alright. Our workload is lighter compared to the fifth wave, although over the past week [December 22 to 29] the number of outpatients increased. The number of inpatients didn’t change much.”
According to Mina, as of now the Ministry of Health has not yet issued any warning to treatment centers about a possible new surge in Covid-19 hospitalizations. This, she says, did happen during previous periods of increased infections.
She added: “Unfortunately, we don’t have any detection kits. This is making the diagnosis difficult. From the beginning the pandemic we’ve relied more on CT scans of the lungs and the symptoms of Covid-19 than on tests. As of now we have seen little change in the condition of people who come to the hospital – only that there are more of them.”
Statements from Iran’s Ministry of Health-controlled universities of medical sciences affirm that for them to identify the new variant, test samples must be sent to the Pasteur Institute in Tehran: the only facility in the whole country equipped to diagnose new variants after the original strain.
On December 22, Mostafa Salehi Vaziri, head of the Pasteur Institute’s national Covid-19 testing lab, claimed a sufficient number of Omicron detection kits had been acquired and were being sent to the universities. Others in the health sector declared the same: among them was Hossein Safavi, president of the Board of Trustees for Patient Treatment with Currency Saving, an NGO and major supplier to the Ministry of Health. Saravi claimed that every day more than 150,000 coronavirus tests were being conducted in Iran whereas in mid-December the Health Ministry had reported that, at the time, the number of tests performed stood at around 100 per day.
IranWire’s own contacts at a number medical centers in Tehran, Gilan and Kermanshah said that, at the time of writing, they had yet to receive any test kits capable of picking up Omicron.
The “First” Rapid Omicron Test Kit?
On December 29, Iranian news agencies reported that Barekat Electronic Health Company, a subsidiary of the Supreme Leader-controlled conglomerate Setad and developer of the beleaguered CovIran-Barekat vaccine, had developed “an antigen-based rapid Omicron detection kit” that simultaneously detects two proteins of spike and nucleocapsid. The kit was trumpeted as “the first of its kind in the world” and capable of detecting Omicron in under 20 minutes.
Speaking to IranWire, a pharmacologist working with Sobhan Pharmaceuticals in Iran, who asked not to be named, rubbished the story. “Not even pharmaceutical companies in the United States have made such a claim. In Iran, we don’t even have an Omicron primer for PCR tests, let alone [the capacity for] developing a detection kit, and a rapid one at that.” A primer is a short, single-stranded DNA sequence used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
Similar claims, the consultant pointed out, have already been made about the creation of Covid-19 detection kits in Iran. “Last year, when a lot of people were criticizing the shortage of diagnostic kits, this same company claimed that it had developed a rapid coronavirus test. All we know about these is that they are much less accurate than PCR tests. When we don’t even have PCR tests for Omicron in Iran, how can they say they have made rapid tests? No doubt, some other organization has made these and they are trying to sell them to the people with propaganda.”
In December 2020, Barekat had also claimed it was one of just three producers of rapid coronavirus test kits in the world, and that these tests could detect the virus in less than 20 minutes. The reported also said the company was supplying the Ministry of Health with 200,000 units of rapid test kits.
The American Food and Drug Administration recently announced a study that found that pre-existing home tests were more likely to give a false negative result for the heavily-mutated Omicron variant compared to earlier strains. The FDA said it was collaborating with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the performance of home tests, also known as antigen tests, against patient samples containing live versions of the Omicron variant. "Early data suggests that antigen tests do detect the Omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity," the agency said. It advised that if a person tests negative with a rapid test but is still thought likely to have Covid, they should also seek out the "gold standard": a PCR test.
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 310 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending December 30. With 53 deaths, December 29 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 2,713 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 119,054,279.
There are currently no Iranian cities on red or orange alert for coronavirus transmission. Fifty-three cities are rated yellow and 395 cities are on “blue” alert.