The vaccination process in Iran has picked up speed in recent weeks and the Islamic Republic has belatedly managed to acquire half the necessary vaccine doses needed for the general population. But anti-vaxxers have simultaneously taken to the streets to push back against “compulsory” vaccination. Amid ongoing propaganda for “traditional” and “Islamic” cures for Covid-19 since the pandemic started, it is possible these protests will present yet another stumbling block for Iran’s urgently-needed widespread vaccination drive.
Across the world, such protesters are generally known as anti-vaxxers – but in Iran, their case against innoculation goes back to religion. Earlier, promoters of so-called “Islamic medicine” had prescribed outlandish cures for Covid-19 such as violet oil applied to the anus and camel’s urine, and insisted that Shia saints would protect people from harm.
On September 12, 2021, a group of Iranians opposed to mandatory vaccination staged a protest in front of the Interior Ministry in Tehran. Protestors carried homemade placards saying “No compulsory vaccination” and also “No to domestic vaccines, no to foreign vaccines! We have the vaccine of Imam Kazem!". Imam Kazem was the seventh Shia Imam – also known as a provider of cures. In Shia mythology the faithful can entreat Imam Kazem for a cure, and he will provide it.
Some Iranian media outlets supported the protesters. One of the most important among them was Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. According to Fars, anti-vaxxers had gathered 51,000 signatures on a petition to ban compulsory general vaccination for reasons such as a “lack of necessary permits and standards for vaccines”, “short-term or long-term complications” and the availability of “other” cures for this plague.
A cleric by the name of Ahmad Panahian further claimed: “The vaccine is a conspiracy by Bill Gates to reduce the world population by 15 percent.” This “imported” conspiracy theory is not new to Iran. In December 2020, Zahra Sheikhi, a female parliamentarian, claimed the same thing and IranWire has previously fact-checked and debunked this claim.
In response, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) published an article defending the government vaccination policy. Titled “Playing with People’s Lives,” it said that “the phenomenon of vaccination-phobia has spread among some religious or ignorant people in various countries.”
Even the National Coronavirus Taskforce was forced to join the fray. Alireza Raeesi, spokesman for the task force, emphasized that vaccination has nothing to do with religion because many religious authorities have been vaccinated even though some people who are anti-vaxxers want to make a religious issue out of it. He pointed out that Iranians are generally eager to get vaccinated because they are willing to stand in line for vaccination even for hours.
There have also been anti-vaxxer rallies before. In early January 2021, when Rouhani’s government announced that it was going to import around 20 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, a small group gathered outside the Health Ministry building in Tehran to protest the decision. They chanted slogans such as “No to domestic vaccine, no to foreign vaccine,” “we have our own Imam Kazem’s cure” and “banish the World Health Organization from decision-making in Iran”.
Later, it turned out that this protest was organized through a Telegram channel named “Anti-Vax” that had promised the would-be protestors both free transportation and free breakfast. It is unclear who organized the protest.
Anti-vaxxers can be found around the world. But they usually come out in force when at least half of the target population has been vaccinated. In Iran, however, not even 15 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
IranWire asked Dr. Hamid Reza Jamshidi, secretary of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, how these followers of so-called “Islamic-traditional” medicine may affect the vaccination process in Iran. “Anti-vaxxers in Iran are less than 10 or 15 percent [of the population] and it is unlikely that they can disrupt the vaccination process,” he said. “To be sure, there are people who will not get the vaccine because they do not want to, but in Iran their number is at a minimum.”
But what can be done to encourage people to be vaccinated, considering that at some point in some countries, such as the US, the willingness of people to get vaccinated has diminished?
“The best way to encourage people is to publish statistics so that people will learn that the number of fatalities falls with more vaccinations,” said Dr. Jamshidi. “This is effective way. And you cannot compare Iranians to Americans because, for our people, health is very important.”
Over-18s Vaccination Starts
Registration for the vaccination of young Iranians over the age of 18 has, meanwhile, started in a number of provinces. Anooshirvan Mohseni Bandpey, Tehran’s provincial governor, said that more than 10 million Tehran province residents are over 18 and that their vaccination would start on September 21. He claimed that within 10 days the whole target population would receive the first dose.
Alireza Zali, director of the Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, however, believes that the necessary facilities to inoculate all over 18s in Tehran within 10 days are not available. What is needed to speed up the process, he said, includes opening more vaccination centers, reactivating inactive centers, increasing the number of work shifts to two or three, and utilizing empty facilities in hospitals.
Iran Has Half the Covid-19 Vaccine Doses it Needs
Fewer than a million doses of coronavirus vaccine are being administered each day across Iran. But last week Iran also topped the list of countries vaccinating the highest number of people in one week. Given that many countries, including others in the region, started vaccinating their citizens several months ago, the Islamic Republic has won a contest without few other contestants.
Iran’s Customs Administration has announced that as of September 17, 58,323,606 doses of coronavirus vaccine doses had been imported through customs. Fifty-four percent of this was imported in just the past month – playing an important role in increasing the pace of vaccination across the country.
Fully vaccinating 60 million Iranians over the age of 18 requires 120 million doses. According to the Health Ministry, as of last week over 41 million doses had been administered, including to 13,459,625 people who have now received both doses of vaccine. A sizeable number of Iranians are therefore still at risk of succumbing to Covid-19.
Official Coronavirus Statistics
Official figures indicate that the fifth wave of the pandemic is in decline. But the daily number of Covid-19 fatalities is still over 400 and health experts have warned that a sixth wave is possible.
Health experts have also again disputed the official fatality figures. Last week, Masoud Pezeshkian, a member Iran’s parliamentary health committee, claimed the actual figure of daily fatalities is more like 1,500, not 400. And on September 14, a group of doctors criticized the Ministry of Health's policy in presenting data to the public regarding Covid-19. "It is as if they do not care about people dying,” they said.
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 3,137 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending September 16. With 487 deaths, September 12 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 6,981 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, both first and second shots, had reached 41,250,460.
There are currently 168 Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission. Another 209 are rated orange and 71 are yellow. No city in Iran is currently on “blue” alert.