Tehran, Iran – Iran’s health ministry has confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the country.
A ministry official told state television on Sunday that the highly contagious variant was detected in a middle-aged Iranian man who had recently travelled back from neighbouring UAE.
The ministry is also monitoring two more suspected cases.
The news comes as Iran has, for weeks, experienced relative calm with low infection, hospitalisations and death figures amid a widespread vaccination campaign.
More than 60 percent of the eligible population has received two doses of a vaccine, and most people can now receive a booster shot.
Iran, with a population of 85 million, has also locally produced several vaccines, a few of which are now deployed in the national vaccination campaign and are expected to be rolled out on a larger scale in the future.
But the country is the most affected in the Middle East with more than 6.1 million cases, including over 131,000 deaths.
The daily death toll has now dropped to double digits from a high of 709 fatalities registered in late August.
The health ministry announced 50 deaths and 1,968 new cases on Sunday.
But with the detection of the Omicron variant in the country, health officials also warned of severe consequences for Iran if health protocols are not observed.
The scientific committee of the national anti-coronavirus task force called for closed-space gathering places like schools, concerts and restaurants to be immediately shuttered for at least four weeks to prevent a quick spread of the Omicron variant.
However, such widespread shutdowns appear highly unlikely as the country has rarely resorted to them even at the worst of times.
Earlier this month, Iran started gradually implementing a “smart protocols” plan that allows almost all activities for vaccinated citizens but introduces limits – for example on travel – for non-vaccinated individuals.