The Ministry of Health and Medical Education has formally announced a “sixth wave” of coronavirus infections is under way in Iran. Omicron has now become the dominant variant: something officials had previously claimed would not happen due to Iranians having “more antibodies” after the late-starting vaccination drive.
The head of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration recently claimed the country would stop importing foreign-made vaccines as domestic manufacturing had picked up pace. Schools and universities reopened, and the government unveiled a so-called “Smart” management plan that was supposed to give vaccinated Iranians staggered, privileged access to other public spaces.
Now parts of the map are once again being put on red alert, with warnings of an exponential increase of hospital inpatients. A member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s scientific committee told IranWire that Omicron had “nullified” the effect of people’s first and second doses of Covid-19 vaccine, adding: “We are now back to square one.”
The high transmissibility of Omicron is fuelling anti-vax sentiment in Iran as many claim it shows the jabs are pointless, at a time when the Health Ministry and other bodies are calling for as many people as possible to get a third dose. So far about 13 million people, or 17 percent of the eligible population, have received a third jab, but about six million still have yet to take up their offer of a first.
Many of those against the vaccine, the official said, were people with “big platforms” and unscientific views. But other people have been hesitant about accepting a vaccine developed and made in Iran, and have sought ought a World Health Organization-approved one like Pfizer or AstraZeneca instead.
Confusion has reigned since the start of January over whether Iran is still importing foreign-made vaccines. Many people who received a first dose of AstraZeneca, Sinopharm or Sputnik have not been able to access another. Meanwhile the government has encouraged people to accept domestically-produced vaccines, or those manufactured in collaboration with countries like Cuba, instead.
Recently the Supreme Leader-owned parastatal conglomerate Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (Setad) conducted an “investigation” into the safety and efficacy of its own vaccine, Barekat, as compared to Sinopharm, Sputnik and AstraZeneca. The results, widely publicized in Iranian state-controlled media, claimed that Barekat was the most effective in preventing hospitalization or death from Covid-19 as well as person-to-person transmission of the virus. It is unlikely to have done much to allay sceptics’ concerns.
Contradiction of encouragement to receive a third dose versus reopening
The National Coronavirus Taskforce member also told IranWire that in addition to getting a booster shot, people should “take the protocols seriously”: “Masks should be taken seriously, businesses and the citizens should observe social distancing, and traffic control from one city to the next should be implemented properly so we can traverse the peak caused by the Omicron variant.”
The warning comes just as the Iranian government was poised to implement its “Smart” plan allowing fully-vaccinated Iranians to use a QR code on their phones to access government buildings, restaurants, entertainment venues and other shared spaces. The call for all citizens to get a third jab has led to confusion over who counts as fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, public life in much of Iran is returning to business as usual.
Mohammad Reza Mahboobfar, a health researcher living in Tehran, told IranWire: “We’re seeing mark usage falling to its lowest level yet; even if people have a mask on it’s symbolic and they don’t take the regulations seriously. Shops and work spaces are closing their doors and windows due to the cold weather and snow; that is, there’s not proper ventilation. From what I’m seeing, Omicron absolutely could turn into a disaster.”