Iran’s supreme leader gets first dose of homegrown vaccine as Covid plans falter

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Friday received the first dose of a domestically produced coronavirus vaccine, as many other elderly Iranians queued at 5am in the hope of receiving any jab.

Khamenei, wearing a surgical mask and a black turban and sitting under a picture of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, received a dose of a domestically produced vaccine licensed on 14 June. He was given a single dose of the COVIran Barekat jab, developed by the state-owned foundation Setad. Khamenei said he had been determined to wait for a homegrown vaccine.

Iran has been hit by a shortage of coronavirus vaccines just as the threat of a fifth wave of the epidemic grows in the country. Fewer than 2% of the population have been vaccinated, according to John Hopkins University.

The queues are the consequence of the government’s struggle to access vaccines in the numbers envisaged. The outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, had promised that 12m vaccines would be administered by the end of June, but through a mixture of missed deliveries, US sanctions and maladministration, he will not meet the target.

The health ministry’s latest target suggests that “by the end of August, vulnerable groups, seriously ill patients and people over 60 years of age will receive the vaccine”. The domestically made Iranian vaccine, a variant of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, does not have a World Health Organization licence, but is claimed to be 90% effective. Iran hopes to produce 30m doses by the end of August. It is selling at roughly $8 a jab, a price that many Iranians are criticising online.

Iran, a country of more than 80 million people, has registered 83,588 Covid-related deaths, and more than 3.1 million people have been infected. Now the country, arguably the first after China to be hit by the virus, is facing worrying signs of a rise in the number of infections in the south. Recently, the media reported that crowds in front of the Shemiranat health centre were so large that the traffic police had to direct vehicles away to prevent clashes.

Reporters at Entekab, a respected Iranian news website, say that more than 300 vaccines are being administered each day at some Tehran health centres, but with more than 1,000 patients waiting, many people are forced to return the next morning.

Iran launched its vaccination programme in February, and it is estimated that nearly 5 million people have received their first jab. The two-week delay to vaccinations for 65-year-olds is testament to the serious bottlenecks that have developed. In the short term, Iran has tried to focus on those 70 or over needing a second vaccine. There have been disputes about whether people who received a foreign vaccine could safely use the domestic vaccine for their second dose.

elderly women and medical staff
Iranians of 70 or over at a Tehran clinic last month where Sinopharm, Sputnik V and AstraZeneca vaccines were being administered. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, vaccinations stopped in some provinces, and are resuming only slowly.

Iran received its first 700,800 AstraZeneca vaccines through the UN-backed Covax scheme in April. At one point, Tehran said it had bought 4.2m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the global vaccine initiative, and had expected them before Nowruz, the Iranian new year, on 20 March.

It has also bought 2m doses of Russia’s Sputnik V, according to the health ministry, and has received 250,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm jab, 125,000 doses of India’s Covaxin, and 100,000 doses of its joint vaccine with Cuba.

While some officials have said that injecting a second dose of Iranian vaccine will not be a problem for those who have received a foreign vaccine for their first jab, others disagree.

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