After weeks of uncertainty about the procurement of foreign-made coronavirus vaccines, on January 8 the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned the import of Covid-19 vaccines from the United States and the United Kingdom in a live, televised speech. Following the speech, the spokesman for Iran’s Red Crescent Society announced that the import of 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which had been donated to Iran by philanthropists, had been canceled.
In the last several weeks, using the hashtag “Buy the Vaccine” on social networks, thousands of Iranians have called for the government to acquire a vaccine as fast as possible. The trend continued after Khamenei’s speech, with additional hashtags such as “Vaccine Banned” emerging.
In addition to the political dimensions of his speech, Khamenei’s arbitrary decision has serious consequences for the fight against coronavirus.
Khamenei: They are not Trustworthy
The first question that comes to mind is: Why did the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic decide to ban American and British vaccines?
In justifying his decision, Khamenei said: “A few days ago, there were 4,000 deaths in their country [the USA] in one day. If they know how to make a vaccine, and if their Pfizer factory knows how to produce one, they can use it for themselves so that there won’t be so many deaths there.”
“I do not trust the French either,” said Khamenei. “The reason is the history of them giving us contaminated blood.” The Supreme Leader was referring to imports of HIV-contaminated blood from the French company Institut Mérieux in the 1980s. France had exported the blood to 12 countries. Iran used the supply to treat patients suffering from hemophilia and the blood disease thalassemia. As a result, approximately 300 of them, including many children, were infected with HIV.
On March 22, 2020, without providing any evidence, Khamenei accused the US of “creating” coronavirus. In his speech on the same day to mark the new Iranian calendar year, he called the American offer of help Iran fight coronavirus “strange,” adding: “First of all, you yourselves have shortcomings in that respect...If you have anything and if you have ample resources, you could use them for your own sake!” And then he said: “You Americans are accused of having produced the virus. I do not know how legitimate that accusation is, but when such an accusation exists, what reasonable individual would trust you with medication? Your medication might become an instrument for spreading the disease further. You have no credibility and you are not trustworthy. The medicines you prescribe or export into our country might make the virus last even longer or prevent it from being controlled. If this accusation is legitimate and if you have produced the virus, well, you are capable of doing these things!”
“Eastern” Vaccines to be Used Until the Iranian Vaccine Is Ready
Khamenei’s “decision is worthless both scientifically and medically,” a general practitioner who lives in Tehran told IranWire. “This decision will lead to more problems for the people and will force medical staff to deal with the consequences of the procurement and the injection of Chines and Russian vaccines.”
A few hours after Khamenei’s speech, Mohammad Hassan Ghosian Moghaddam, spokesman for the Red Crescent Society, announced that the donated Pfizer vaccine would not be imported and tried to reassure Iranians, saying: “the Iranian vaccine is in development and will satisfy our needs but, if necessary, we will procure the vaccine from eastern countries,” meaning China, Russia and India.
“Iran has the capability to mass produce the Iranian vaccine but currently the Iranian vaccine is in a ‘trial and error’ phase,” said the doctor IranWire interviewed. “This means the development of the vaccine must first arrive providing between two and four formulas and with effectiveness of above 70 percent. It is only afterward that the production process can start. At the moment, Iran has two formulas and both are at the trial phase.”
According to the doctor, the process will take at least a year. “After successful clinical trials, the Iranian vaccine must be approved by the World Health Organization, whereas we are only a month into the one-year process of getting to a vaccine.”
Prior to this, Dr. Noureddine Pirmoazzen, a former member of the Iranian parliament who now lives in the US, told IranWire: “What they say about the Iranian vaccines is ambiguous. We know nothing about its components either. The World Health Organization believes that all the data and information of a good vaccine must be transparent and must be available to the public in a clear format. Sufficient information must be published about all its trial phases, whether during animal testing or human testing, and each of the three clinical trial phases must last three months. In the best-case scenario such a vaccine would be approved after nine months. So you can see that there are many ambiguities in this case.”
“The Supreme Leader’s emphasis is on using the Iranian vaccine,” says the doctor in Tehran. “Since the process is going to be long, the Islamic Republic has decided to use Chinese, Russian or Indian vaccines in the meantime. But let us not forget that, as of now, only the Chinese vaccine has been approved by the World Health Organization. Most important is the fact that these vaccines lead to complications, which are now being studied.”
Expect More Fatalities
The doctor in Tehran believes that the Moderna vaccine is the best out of the vaccines that have been developed so far and warns that it will take the Iranian vaccine at least two or three years to be widely available. Considering the emergence of new coronavirus strains, we must expect more fatalities, he said.
In recent weeks Islamic Republic officials have repeatedly claimed that American sanctions were preventing Iran from buying the vaccine from other countries. On January 6, Governor of the Central Bank Abdolnaser Hemmati announced that a prepayment for 16.8 million doses of vaccines from COVAX, an initiative sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), had taken place on the first day after the new year holidays. But now that Khamenei has banned the import of American and British vaccines, it is not clear what will happen to this prepayment announced by Hemmati.
Another doctor based in Isfahan also believes Khamenei’s decision is scientifically indefensible. “It appears that Mr. Khamenei’s advisors are just a bunch of yes-men who failed to point out to him the consequences of such a decision. If I use their own vocabulary, I would say probably his advisors for health affairs and the officials of the ministry of health only want to carry out ‘the Supreme Leader’s wishes’ and they carry out these wishes without giving him any advice.”
The doctor believes that anybody who is even minimally involved in the field of health and medicine knows the disastrous consequences. “The reasons behind this decision are a series of unscientific delusions, and health specialists should have warned him about it beforehand,” he says. “Unfortunately those who climb to a position of responsibility in the Islamic Republic are people who know how be good yes-men. Most probably, the volume of flattery and toadyism toward their Supreme Leader is so high that it leaves no room to give advice or, if they do, their leader is so opinionated that he pays no attention to this advice and makes his decisions on his own in every area, even in specialized fields such as medicine, which affects the lives and the health of the people.”
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