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Eight Months On, Iran Lifts Ban On American Covid Vaccines

Head of Iran's Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Mohammad-Reza Shanehsaz, said Monday that a permit has been issued to import Pfizer and Moderna vaccines made outside the United States. Importing US Covid-19 vaccines and the British-made AstraZeneca was banned in January by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Shanesaz stressed that Khamenei's concerns had been addressed and that while a source should be reliable "a vaccine's name" was not reason enough to ban its import. Iran has received over 2.9 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from Japan, where they were produced, and has also used South Korean-made AstraZeneca purchased through the World Health Organization’s Covax program.

In a televised speech August 11, Khamenei called for swift, decisive action to contain the Covid pandemic and stressed that vaccines should be imported "in any possible way." A day earlier, FDA spokesman Dr Kianoush Jahanpur said Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca could be imported if not produced in the US and Britain. Pfizer and Moderna had so far been off limits.

In recent days, with the Covid death toll rising, Iranian media have become more vocal over Covid policies, including vaccines. There has been criticism of health minister Saeed Namaki who in defiance of former President Hassan Rouhani's wishes resisted vaccine imports, both by government agencies and the private sector.

In an article headlined "Salting Wounds" Tuesday, the conservative Asr-e Iran website criticized authorities over a delay procuring vaccines, investing hope in Russia and China for millions of doses they had failed to deliver, hiding the real Covid death toll, and allowing Muharram mourning ceremonies. The last, some warn, will be reflected in coming days in Covid infection and death rates. The article asked whether police were powerless to act against Muharram celebrants breaking public-health rules when they did act against “people who take their poor dogs out for a half hour walk."

The media have also highlighted repeated promises of monthly production of 12 to 15 million doses of the homegrown CovIran Barakat vaccine, of which only 2.5 million have materialized. "Even if we were 95 percent sure about timely production of an Iranian-made vaccine, we should have assumed that there wouldn't be a homegrown vaccine and made the maximum effort to import," journalist Abbas Abdi told Etemad newspaper Tuesday. "It's hard to accept that hundreds of millions of dollars could be used to import medicine to treat Covid patients but not Covid vaccines.”

CovIran Barakat vaccine is produced by a company linked to a charitable organization under the control of Khamenei’s office. This has raised questions if the ban on importing Western vaccines was motivated by powerful officials who wanted to make profits from the monoploly of a homegrown vaccine.

Iran has reported 99,108 deaths and 4.51 million Covid cases, but from almost the onset of the pandemic many health experts, media, and local officials have said the health ministry’s numbers do not reflect reality, with some estimating the real number of deaths 2.5 times higher.

Whereas the weekly death toll has dropped in the United Kingdom from a high of 8,700 to 629, now that 61 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, Iran with just 4 percent fully vaccinated has a latest weekly toll of 3,880, the highest so far in the pandemic. In recent days Iran has twice broken its record of daily deaths, with 655 people fatalities on Sunday. 

The Covid mortality rate in Iran is currently the ninth highest in the world of countries most badly affected by the pandemic according to John Hopkins university, with 119 deaths per 100,000 population.

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