Tehran, Iran – All flights to and from India and Pakistan were suspended as Iran continues to deal with a severe fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.
The decision to stop the flights came on the suggestion of the health ministry that recommended the move since it said the coronavirus strain found in India could pose a much graver risk than the variant first found in the United Kingdom, which has now become dominant in Iran.
“Now we face a new threat that is the Indian virus, which is worse than the English, Brazilian and South African ones,” warned President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday.
“If this virus also enters the country we will face a major problem,” he said during a televised session of the national anti-coronavirus task force.
Rouhani said rising cases, hospitalisations, and deaths show the condition of most of Iran’s 32 provinces is “concerning” as only a handful are thought to have reached peak transmissions during the fourth wave.
Iran’s health ministry said on Saturday that 374 more people died in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll of the worst-hit country in the Middle East to more than 69,000. Iran has registered about 2.3 million cases since February 2020.
The country saw its worst daily case number of 25,492 last week, the highest since the peak of the third wave in November.
The capital Tehran is by far the worst hit by the pandemic and often sees one-third of all deaths across the country on a daily basis.
Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra, the country’s largest cemetery, last week saw a record number of 350 daily COVID and non-COVID deaths, the highest in the past 50 years.
Iran imposed a number of restrictions, including partial shutdowns and provincial travel restrictions for cities classified “red” or “orange” on a scale denoting the severity of outbreaks two weeks ago that were extended till Friday.
No new restrictions or extensions were introduced on Saturday as the country’s economy continues to struggle under the double-blow of the pandemic and harsh United States sanctions.
Vaccine efforts continue to lag
Rouhani on Saturday said providing vaccines for Iran’s population of 82 million people is a top priority for his outgoing government.
But so far only about two million doses of vaccines from Russia, China, India, Cuba, and the global COVAX initiative have been imported into the country, with just more than half a million people receiving at least one jab.
Iran said earlier this month it has reached an agreement with Russia to receive 60 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine by the end of 2021, and has said 16.8 million doses will be imported through COVAX in the coming months.
This is while three hopeful local vaccine candidates are in various stages of human trials, with one slated to begin on Sunday, the third phase that will see 10,000 people receiving the vaccine.
Iran and Cuba have also been working on a joint vaccine for months that is expected to begin its third phase of human trials in Iran in the foreseeable future.