Tehran, Iran – An announcement by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week that Russia’s primary coronavirus vaccine candidate has become the first approved foreign vaccine in Iran sparked a fierce debate.
Zarif was in Moscow as part of a diplomatic trip across the Caucasus when he announced the approval of Sputnik V for emergency use and said Iran aims to start co-producing the vaccine in the near future.
The first shipment of 10,000 doses is expected to arrive in Iran on Thursday while up to 400,000 doses are expected in several instalments before the current Iranian calendar year ends in late March.
Healthcare workers and highly vulnerable groups are first in line to receive the limited doses.
However, public and health officials have been locked in a debate over the vaccine.
The first major message of distrust aimed at Sputnik V came from one of Iran’s top infectious disease experts, Minoo Mohraz, who is a leading figure in the country’s efforts to produce local vaccines.
She said she will not use the vaccine because it has yet to be approved by the World Health Organization or the European Medicines Agency, adding that Iran was importing it due to the “Iranian people’s bad fortune”.
Her criticism garnered a harsh rebuke from Kianoush Jahanpour, spokesman of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, who said Mohraz had no “responsibility or status” to weigh in on foreign COVID-19 vaccines.
Iran’s health minister Saeed Namaki said any claims the country is importing unsafe vaccines amount to “malignancy” and “national treason”, adding that Sputnik V was bashed for “economic interests”.
“To the dismay of many who can’t bear to see it, we will give the vaccines to our own families so everyone will know we consider people’s health above our own,” Namaki said on TV.
Several Iranian officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Iran’s government, meanwhile, rejected claims it is purchasing Sputnik V due to political gains.
On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, said Iran could have accessed the vaccine – which, in August last year, became the first vaccine in the world to receive national approval – much earlier due to its good relations with Russia.
“If the vaccine were to be purchased recklessly and without expert evaluation, the process wouldn’t take this long,” Vaezi said.
However, nearly 100 members of the board of Iran’s Medical Council signed a letter addressed to President Rouhani saying purchasing Sputnik V before international approval could be “dangerous”.
“It appears that diplomatic considerations in this vaccine’s purchase prevented its standard evaluation,” they wrote.
Hosseinali Shahriari, who heads the parliament’s health commission, said he would not use the vaccine, suggesting any foreign vaccines should first be tested on officials.
According to peer-reviewed results published on Tuesday in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, Sputnik V is 91.6 percent effective against COVID-19, putting the vaccine among top candidates in the world.
The vaccine, which has been developed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, has been given regulatory approval in 16 countries so far and is awaiting emergency use approval by the WHO.
Sputnik V’s manufacturers say they have received requests for the vaccination of more than 1.2 billion people from more than 50 countries. The vaccine works in two different doses administered 21 days apart.
Mahmoud Sadeghi, a former member of parliament, said in a tweet that COVID-19 vaccines put up a mirror to Iranian politics and life in the country.
“While official daily number of victims fluctuate between two and three digits, we reject the tested Pfizer vaccine because it’s American! Then we announce that we will soon produce an Iranian vaccine. Then we take refuge in the untested Russian vaccine!” he wrote.
The politician was referring to an order last month by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei that banned imports of vaccines from the United States and United Kingdom.
It appears that Iranian officials consider the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be Swedish as, on Wednesday, the health minister announced that 4.2 million doses of the vaccine will be imported this month through WHO’s COVAX initiative.
The human trials of COVIran Barekat, Iran’s leading vaccine candidate, started in late December and authorities hope they can begin using it in large numbers in the coming months.
No data has been published on the vaccine’s efficacy as it has yet to clear human trials, but authorities have said the vaccine works against the COVID-19 variant first found in the UK and volunteers have not experienced any serious side effects.
Two other Iranian vaccine candidates are expected to start human trials soon.
Iran has been the hardest-hit country in the Middle East in terms of fatalities with more than 58,000 deaths from 1.4 million coronavirus cases.
For the past few months, Iranian social media has been filled with discussions on vaccines.
Hashtags have been aimed at buying safe vaccines and expressing distrust with the Russian vaccine.
However, the most recurring hashtag has been #BuyVaccines which gained prominence again this week after two well-loved former footballers died of coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Iran’s state-run broadcaster said social media trends are “psychological operations” by foreign-based Farsi-language media aimed at sowing distrust.