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Medical Council Chief Blames Khamenei's Vaccine Ban For Iran Covid Crisis

Dr Mohammad-Reza Zafarghandi, chairman of Iran’s non-governmental licensing and regulatory Medical Council, Sunday criticized Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's ban on United States and United Kingdom-made Covid-19 vaccines. His tweet came as Iran reached its highest level of daily deaths since the pandemic began.

"Mortality has significantly dropped in countries where they vaccinated the population without any limits and setting [political] borders,” Zafarghandi wrote. “Will those who said vaccine imports should be restricted be accountable today?”

Zafarghandi did not directly name Khamenei, who banned Importing Covid vaccines from the US and Britain on January 8, 2021 when the World Health Organization (WHO) had only approved the US-made Pfizer and Moderna and British-made AstraZeneca vaccines. There was great reluctance in Iran, encouraged on social media, not to use the Russian Sputnik vaccine.

Zafarghandi has many times urged the authorities to procure vaccines "in any possible way and without any limitation to save people's lives". In a Clubhouse session April 12, he said that the best vaccines were "the fastest available."

According to figures from John Hopkins University, Iran has fully vaccinated 3.4 percent of the population. Two neighbors with higher vaccination rates, Turkey (33.4 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (73 percent), have used a mixture of Pfizer, AstraZenica, Sinovac and Sputnik.

Zafarghandi wrote in his tweet that actual deaths from Covid were higher than the health ministry's figures. The ministry on Monday announced 588 deaths for the last 24-hour period, the highest daily figure since the pandemic began in February 2020.

In its last months, the Rouhani administration − which complied with Khamenei's despite disagreeing with it − imported vaccines from various sources, and Iran has now vaccinated over 12.5 million people with one dose and 3 million with two.

After Khamenei's ban, Iranians waited months for Chinese, Russian and homegrown vaccines. Promises over the homegrown vaccines have not yet materialized. CovIran-Barakat has been authorized only in Iran for emergency use and according to Food and Drug Administration spokesman Kianoush Jahanpur, accounts for only slightly over 1 million out of 15.6 million doses administered.

So far, Iran has registered nearly 4.2 million cases and 94,000 deaths, but almost from the beginning of the pandemic health experts, the media and local officials have said the health ministry’s number are too low. Some estimates have put the real number of deaths 2.5 times higher. Experts say the discrepancy between reported deaths and real fatalities is a result of insufficient testing, with many dying of Covid who were never tested. 

The new government of president Ebrahim Raisi includes figures strongly opposed to importing vaccines. Mohammad Mokhber, appointed as first vice-President on August 9, a critic of western-made vaccines, is former head of Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) which produces CovIran-Barakat, Iran's only homegrown vaccine.

Health officials have also said that part of the vaccine shortage is due to Chinese and Russian companies' failure in honoring their commitments for delivery of Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines.

Rights groups including Amnesty International have criticized Khamenei’s ban, and said politics should not be involved in the decisions related to health.

A British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National and journalist at Iran International
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