Iranian health and industry officials have long boasted about Iran’s vaccine production capabilities, claiming the country is making six brands of Covid-19 jab. Several of these are owned and being developed by security bodies, in line with the “securitization” of public health observed in Iran since the beginning of the pandemic.
In recent weeks and to great fanfare, the Noora vaccine, developed by Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences (BMSU), an affiliate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), received its emergency permit. This followed the green-lighting of the Defense Ministry’s Fakhra vaccine, named after assassinated nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The fate of the latter is unknown because not enough volunteers came forward to run an adequate clinical trial.
Elsewhere and for about a year now, production of the much-vaunted CovIran-Barekat vaccine, made by the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (“Setad”), an organization directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has come up against many obstacles. Iranians have shown little enthusiasm for using the domestically-made jab over other, WHO-approved brands.
Nejat Bahrami, an Iranian journalist and political analyst who now lives in Istanbul, believes two factors have driven institutions like the IRGC and the Defense Ministry into the venture: a shortage of financial resources, and “revolutionary” ideology. “After several years of sanctions by western powers,” he told IranWire, “the resources at the disposal of these gentlemen have been exhausted. Their situation is perilous.
“As a result, the regime wants to spend the remaining budget in areas where funds will come back to pro-Islamic Republic, pro-Islamic Revolution institutions. Even in a crisis as overwhelming as the coronavirus pandemic, they have opted not to put resources at the disposal of specialized institutions that would have done a much better job in making vaccines, because these are not on the frontlines of defending the regime.” The same, he notes, has gone for large-scale construction and development contracts in Iran in the past, which are generally handed to the IRGC.
“For many years,” Bahrami added, “the regime has sought to show that elected governments’ chosen institutions are not adequately committed to the revolution. They want to show they can do extraordinary things, acts by ‘revolutionary, committed young scientists’ – keywords Ali Khamenei has used – that’ll amaze the world. He gives preference to ‘revolutionary commitment’ over expertise. In sum, a viewpoint has emerged that holds amazing things can be achieved through ‘revolutionary commitment’ – even in science, technology and medicine, without expertise.”
Two or Three Doses for Nowruz?
Nowruz, Iranian new year, begins on March 21 and will last for 13 days. Earlier, the National Coronavirus Taskforce had said people with three doses of Covid-19 jab were allowed to travel; that was later changed to two shots and a negative PCR test result. At the same time, however, a growing chorus of health practitioners are calling on people not to travel or take part in gatherings at all.
Dr. Mohammad Pahlevan, head of PR at Mashhad University of Medical Science, has said there is no guarantee health protocols will be observed in the holy city of Mashhad, a popular Nowruz travel destination. Unchecked pilgrimages, he warned, could lead to a seventh “wave” of Covid-19 in Iran.
Dr. Ehsan Mostafavi, head of the Pasteur Institute of Iran’s research center for new and recurrent diseases, has also asked people to postpone their travels. He pointed out that after the last year’s Nowruz the country witnessed a surge in Covid-19 cases and fatalities.
But Nowruz tour operators are already at full capacity, according to Iranian media reports. Minoo Mohraz, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s scientific committee, said these organized trips, too, were “very likely” to increase Omicron infections.
Reza, a resident of Tehran, told IranWire that the contradictory guidance from officials had left everyone in the capital confused. “Those who want to travel by bus, plane or train have already bought their tickets. And a large number of people go to northern provinces or nearby. Be in no doubt: like always, the traffic is going to be heavy. The only thing is they’ll be fining people, because of the incorrect information given. People aren’t happy with the officials.”
Reza has received two shots of a Covid-19 jab and is due to receive a booster next month. Like many others, he is planning to drive to Gilan for Nowruz. “We’ll just buy a PCR test card,” he says. “It’s not complicated and a PCR test costs the same as a fine. That said, I’m sure that with the heavy traffic on the roads the police won’t even check whether I have one or not.”
Fake Figures Still Being Plugged by Officials
No matter which aspect of the pandemic in Iran is under scrutiny, there is always a conspicuous gap between what officials claim and the reality on the ground. The record shows that for the past two years, all published statistics have been inconsistent with what has really gone on.
One such set of figures is that relating to the number of people vaccinated against Covid-19. “More than 92 of Iranians have received the first dose of the vaccine,” claimed Health Minister Bahram Einollahi on Sunday, March 6. Iran has a population of 84 million; if correct, this would mean more than 75 million Iranians had had at least one Covid-19 jab. But figures published by the Health Ministry itself put that number at less than 64 million.
Not only had the minister cited incorrect figures, but he went on to favorably compare Iran to the United States in terms of its vaccination record. Just 60 percent of Americans had received a first jab, he said; official data from the US put the figure at more than 76 percent. The Iranian Health Ministry has also never published vaccination figures broken down by age group, unlike the American Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 1,133 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending March 10. With 201 deaths, March 6 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 3,176 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 144,079,994.
There are currently 148 Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission. Another 196 are rated orange and 101 are yellow. Currently only three cities in Iran are on “blue” alert.