Ayatollah Khamenei appeared on Wednesday to have changed his position on the need to import Covid-19 vaccines to Iran. In a televised speech, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic called on the authorities to secure vaccines for coronavirus-racked Iran by any means necessary, calling it “the country’s first and foremost, urgent issue”.

Iran is now recording record numbers of new Covid-19 cases spurred in part by the Delta variant, with more than 500 citizens dying every day according to official figures. The true death toll is likely to be significantly higher than reported, due to a lack of testing and manipulation of the figures at the outset of the pandemic.

Last March, Khamenei repeatedly told people not to allow Iran’s “enemies” to overestimate the threat posed by SARS-CoV-2. In a speech on March 3, he said: "Do not make the coronavirus a big issue. This will exist for a short time, and then it will disappear." 

Despite all evidence to the contrary that emerged over the next 10 months, Khamenei then used an address on January 8, 2021 to ban the importation of American and British-made Covid-19 vaccines. "If the Pfizer factory can make a vaccine, they should use it on themselves first," he said, adding that the two countries were not “trustworthy”.

Officials at the Health Ministry and the Food and Drug administration scrambled to clarify that Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, all of which were developed or part-developed in the US and Britain, could still be used in Iran as long as they were manufactured somewhere else. The Islamic Republic has since procured doses of AstraZeneca from other countries such as India.

A reported 21 million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine, the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, the Indian-made vaccine Bharat and others have also found their way into Iran as of August 9. By itself, this would be sufficient to fully inoculate one quarter of the population.

The Islamic Republic has also unveiled its own domestically-produced jab, CovIran-Barekat, and at least five others that have yet to be rolled out. But progress has been glacial and no official data has been published on their safety or efficacy. Recently, some 1.2 million doses of CovIran-Barekat were “lost” by the manufacturing plant; an informed source told IranWire they were believed to be contaminated with live virus.

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