Iran eyes normalisation as COVID vaccination drive accelerates

Coronavirus cases are declining across Iran, but the country is far from controlling the pandemic.

An Iranian nurse tends to patients suffering from coronavirus disease in Tehran, Iran [File: Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

Tehran, Iran – The rollouts of Iran’s vaccination campaign against COVID-19 has gathered significant pace, after months of public anger about slow imports, raising hopes of a relative return to normal life in the Middle East’s worst-hit country.

More than 30 million jabs alone were imported during the sixth month of the Iranian calendar which ends on Wednesday – higher than all doses imported since the start of February combined. Another 13.4 million doses were imported in the previous Iranian month, in the middle of which President Ebrahim Raisi took office.

Iran’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that 60 million more doses are expected to be imported during the next month. The overwhelming majority of imported doses so far have been that of China’s Sinopharm, followed by AstraZeneca jabs from several countries and via the global COVAX initiative.

No explanation has been provided by officials as to what caused the sudden opening in vaccine imports, and why so few doses were imported before as public frustration about the slow rollout dragged on.

Iran has repeatedly blamed the effects of United States sanctions, in addition to global production delays and unfulfilled shipment promises, as reasons behind the trickling imports.

Earlier this week, Raisi vaguely said that “unfortunately, some had stopped vaccine imports” until the full ratification of legislation required to complete Iran’s action plan with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that combats money laundering and terrorism financing.

COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations are on a declining trajectory as most of the country is thought to have passed the peak of a fifth wave of the pandemic, which has proven to be by far the deadliest, with a record daily death toll of 709 people registered in late August.

But Iran is still far from containing the virus as the health ministry said on Wednesday; 286 people died during the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to more than 118,000. A further 17,433 cases were also recorded on Wednesday, for a total case number of almost 5.5 million.

Semblance of normalcy

Meanwhile, a World Cup qualifier football match between Iran and South Korea slated to take place in Tehran in less than a month could signal the gradual return to normalisation.

Officials hope at least 10,000 people will be able to cheer the Iranian national team at the capital’s 80,000-strong Azadi Stadium during the important match.

Matches for Iran’s football league are due to follow soon after, and officials hope that at least partially filled stadiums can produce images of normalcy.

Moreover, the new school year is due to begin on Saturday – but most schools will once more open their classes virtually. A number of schools located in less-populated, rural areas can open physically as most teachers across the country have received both doses of vaccines.

Officials hope to open schools and universities across the country physically in several phases after vaccination efforts achieve more progress.

University students are now in the process of receiving vaccines while 10 to 12 million doses are expected to be imported soon to inoculate students aged 12 to 18.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in January banned imports of vaccines from the US and the United Kingdom, saying he does not trust them. But officials said earlier this year that US and British vaccines could be imported provided they were manufactured in a third country.

Health officials have said the Pfizer jab manufactured in Belgium, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine produced in Germany have received a green light from Iran’s Food and Drug Administration and can be rolled out if they can be imported.

Meanwhile, production delays continue to plague the locally developed COVIran Barekat vaccine. Setad, the powerful organisation under the supreme leader that develops the jab, had promised 50 million doses by Wednesday, whereas about 14 million have been manufactured, and six million has been handed to the health ministry.

Several more locally developed vaccines are undergoing their third phase of human trials and are expected to be rolled out in the coming months.

Source: Al Jazeera