On the last day of the Iranian week ending on Thursday July 8, the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Iran suddenly exceeded 23,000. While the Delta variant has been fueling the fifth wave of coronavirus infections, Iran’s vaccination program has remained steeped in a quagmire of mismanagement.
Once in a while, shipments of Covid-19 vaccines do find their way inside Iran’s borders. But most do not bear a brand name, or the name of the country of origin. Official figures state that nine million doses have been imported so far, while the number of domestically-made vaccines distributed is lost in a thicket of contradictory statements and reports.
In the meantime, Iranians have grown tired of two months of unfulfilled promises about vaccinations. Those who can afford it are now traveling en masse to neighboring countries to get their first shot.
Four-Star Hotels and Two Doses: Iranians’ Vaccine Tourism
Armenia, Iran’s northern neighbor, has long been a favorite holiday destination for Iranians. Now travel agencies have been able to entice them in the country with the promise of the Covid-19 vaccines denied to them at home.
Iranian officials, of course, are trying to discourage people. Kianoush Jahanpour, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, bitterly tweeted claiming the only reason the doses were on offer was because Armenia was struggling to vaccinate its own population.
The manager of a travel agency in northern Iran told IranWire that before Armenia started offering free vaccinations, his firm was arranging two to three tour groups to the country a month. This has now gone up to five, and most firms are now booked up for the rest of the summer.
In his experience, half of those who signed up were doing it for the vaccine. “[Iranians in] northern and north-western provinces have the advantage of being able to travel to Armenia by land,” he said, “so our buses get filled up very quickly.”
Whenever a customer calls, he said, they now have more questions about the brands of vaccine on offer in Armenia than the sightseeing. Tours cost 3.5 million tomans ($850) and can go up to five million [$1200], depending on the price of the dollar.
“On the tour that left today [July 8],” the tour operator said, “we had travelers from provinces of Gilan, Tehran, Zanjan, Qazvin, Mazandaran and East Azerbaijan.
“Travelers do also ask about the second dose. We’ve even had cases where they booked a slot on a second tour in two or three months’ time. The good part is that they travel twice and pay around 10 million tomans [$2,400]. And they stay at four-star hotels, which makes it feel like a bargain. I’ve not had a chance to go on one of these trips myself, but our tour guides have, and they’ve been vaccinated.”
That said, the bookings have dwindled somewhat after critical reports in Iranian media and the government’s terse reaction. On Tuesday, July 6, the Armenian ambassador to Tehran announced that from July 15, travelers who stayed for fewer than 10 days in Armenia would not receive a vaccinated.
“There’s a week left until the new rule takes effect,” a 35-year-old tour guide with the agency told IranWire. She had her first AstraZenica shot in Armenia on May 14, and is hoping to return soon for the second. “Perhaps the shock reduced the number of travelers,” she said, “but it seems that this week there might another rush.
“The regulations make it more difficult for low-income people. But if you have money, what difference does it make whether the tour’s three days or 10?”
It was last December that the firm first began offering “vaccine tours” to other countries. It was instantly ordered not to mention vaccines in its advertising posters, but continued to do so sporadically on Instagram.
“People learn about it and call us,” the guide said. “Aside from the vaccine issue, we get a lot of custom these days because, with the economic situation being what it is, many travelers are choosing Armenia over Europe or Turkey.”
She adds that in her experience, many Iranian travel agencies have been using the vaccine rush to overcharge would-be travelers. It does not seem to have affected demand.
The Baffling Trajectory of Iran’s Domestic Covid-19 Vaccines
Shifa pharmaceutical company, the producer of Iran’s domestic CovIran-Barekat vaccine, has been forced to deny reports that its production line has been sabotaged and insisted all facilities are operating at full capacity.
A few days earlier, Mohammad Marandi, a political analyst and the son of the Supreme Leader’s personal physician, had claimed the production of CovIran-Barekat had been disrupted as a result of a “hostile action” by the US. He implied he was not at liberty to divulge the details.
Shortly afterward, though, Marandi about-turned and said he had been misquoted. But Hojjat Niki Maleki, a spokesman for Setad, the parastatal conglomerate controlled by the Supreme Leader that developed CovIran-Barekat, then reported that more than 1.2 million doses of vaccine has been “lost”.
The production of CovIran-Barekat started in the fall of 2020 and officials of the Islamic Republic promised that a million doses would be available by the wintertime. But every month after that, different excuses were given as to a delay. The vaccine is now said to be ready in time for August.
Hojjat Niki Maleki later tried to address the “missing” vaccines controversy by tweeting: “Given that this is a new production line, it is quite plausible that there will be problems in filling the vials after production; a batch of 1.2 million doses could get spoiled.”
Earlier, in April, it had been reported that production of CovIran-Barekat was not going to plan, but Setad denied the report.
Dr. Alireza Naji, head of Iran’s Virology Center, also chimed in with a theory about the alleged vaccine loss. “It’s possible that mistakes were made in the production line when they were separating the basic ingredients,” he said, adding helpfully: “It is also possible that things other than mistakes happened when they were filling up the vials.” Naji went on to suggest that some officials, out of haste or perhaps ignorance, had wanted to get rid of the imported vaccines as soon as possible and begin using the Iranian ones instead.
Nevertheless, Iran’s Food and Drug Administration recently issued an emergency permit for the use of CovIran-Barekat, despite the fact that the results of its clinical trials have not yet been published.
Dr. Minoo Mohraz, the chief supervisor of the vaccine’s clinical trials, announced that 400,000 doses had already been delivered to the Ministry of Health and 550,000 more doses would be delivered soon.
But Dr. Payam Tabarsi, head of the contagious diseases ward at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari Hospital, who is also a member of CovIran-Barekat clinical trial team, said he had no idea whether such a delivery had been made or not. “I prefer to say I don’t know,” he said. “The makers of the vaccine say that they have delivered the doses to the Ministry of Health, but the Ministry says it has not received such a shipment.”
The extent of internal contradiction in the past week, added to the known state of Iran’s wider resourcing and production capabilities, has once again given rise to the question: is there really a CovIran-Barekat vaccine at all? Or will it be one of the imported batches, marketed under a different brand?
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to official statistics announced daily by the Health Ministry, a total of 1,008 patients lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending July 8. With 166 deaths, July 7 had the highest number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 3,420 Covid-19 patients were being treated in ICUs. The official figures state that as of now 2,090,510 Iranians have received both doses of Covid-19 vaccine.
At the week’s end 120 Iranian cities were on red alert for coronavirus transmission, 182 are orange and 146 were yellow. No city in Iran was on blue alert.