Iran’s failed Covid-19 vaccination campaign due to 'political power struggle'

Videos shared online show queues up to a hundred meters long as people wait for hours to be vaccinated. Others show thousands of people rushing to the border with Armenia to be vaccinated there.
Videos shared online show queues up to a hundred meters long as people wait for hours to be vaccinated. Others show thousands of people rushing to the border with Armenia to be vaccinated there. © Observers @mamlekate

Iran’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign has been rife with complications: videos shared online show queues up to a hundred metres long as people wait for hours to be vaccinated, with doses sometimes running out long before everyone receives their jab. Others show thousands of people rushing to the border with Armenia in search of a dose. According to our Observer, an Iranian doctor, these predicaments are the result of political rivalries and the failure of Iran’s vaccine strategy.

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In Iran, a country of 82 million people, only 4.7 million people have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while just 2.2 million are fully vaccinated. So far, people 60 years of age and older are the only ones eligible for vaccination. Videos shared online show elderly men and women waiting in line for hours before they can get vaccinated.

A Video Published On May 21 On Twitter Shows Elderly Men And Women Waiting In A Long Queue In Front Of A Vaccination Provider.

Many others – mostly young, middle-class Iranians who are not yet eligible for vaccination and don’t expect to receive their vaccines in Iran anytime soon – have found their solution abroad, either in Dubai or Armenia, the northwestern neighbour of Iran which is easily reached by plane or car.

A video published on Twitter on July 12 shows a group of people who have become angry after waiting for hours for their vaccine.

According to official numbers, which many experts suggest are largely underestimated, 86,000 Iranians have lost their lives to Covid-19. The country was severely impacted by a fifth wave of the pandemic, exacerbated by the spread of the Delta variant. 

>> Read on The Observers: Authorities in Iran 'hiding' COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports

Since December 2020, Iranian political leaders have been promising to unroll a mass vaccination campaign using domestically produced vaccines. Iran’s health ministry said they would be providing Iranian vaccines starting this spring. But so far, the vaccines available to Iranians have been Sputnik V from Russia, Sinovac and Sinopharm from China and AstraZeneca vaccines produced in India. 

But supplies have not been sufficient to meet the demand for vaccines in Iran. On July 10, Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced, “From tomorrow, we will inject 400,000 vaccines each day.” However, according to Iranian media, only around 51,000 doses have been administered daily since then. 

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Iranian police pushed and hit an elderly man who was waiting in the queue for a vaccine. Video published on YouTube on June 27.

‘Vaccination has become a political and economic power struggle and rivalry’ 

Dr. Hadi Yazdani is a physician based in Shiraz, in central Iran. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers why Iran has been seeing a vaccine shortage:

There are a few different factors involved in the vaccination crisis in Iran. On one hand, there is a general problem in the world: there are a limited number of vaccines globally, and countries like India, China and Russia that have promised to provide vaccines to Iran, refused to sell them in the end [Editor’s note: either due to insufficient supply or higher bidding countries].

The Islamic Republic has never tried to establish a normal relationship with the world and, in crisis periods like this, they are not able to ask for any favours

Iranians at the border checkpoint between Iran and Armenia, trying to enter Armenia for a vaccine. Video published on Twitter on July 10.

But the main problem lies somewhere else: some powerful and well-connected parties have managed to convince political leaders that we don’t need foreign vaccines and have blocked foreign vaccine purchases in large quantities.

These groups are powerful and well-connected. They even have pull with the most powerful official in Iran, the Supreme Leader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a short speech in January 2021, banned “western-made vaccines” from the United States, United Kingdom and even France [Editor’s note: France is developing a Sanofi-GSK vaccine which is not yet in distribution].

Eighteen different Iranian companies have submitted their vaccine licenses in Iran. If we look closely, only two or three companies are scientific ones, the others belong to different political and power factions in Iran. The most important group among them is the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive, also known as Setad, which is making the COVIran Barekat vaccine.

Setad is one of the most powerful and richest semi-governmental bodies in Iran, created in 1989 by Rohollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and now directly controlled by current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Setad, which is valued at around $95 billion, was sanctioned by former US president Donald Trump in June 2019. Setad has promised to provide more than 50 million Barekat vaccines by September 2021, but so far, none have been delivered.

A video posted on Twitter on July 8 shows Iranians in a vaccination center in Armenia.

‘So far, all they have given to people are just words’

Dr Hadi Yazdani continued: 

Vaccination has become a political and economic power struggle and rivalry in Iran. These factions have realised that the Covid-19 vaccination is something that might need to be readministered every year or so. In this case, they look at it as a huge and endless source of money. So they tried to encourage nationalism for “made-in-Iran” products in the vaccination campaign to just fill their pockets. 

And so far, all they have given to people are just words. We have not seen any vaccines and there is no available data to verify the efficiency of these so-called made-in-Iran vaccines. Even if these vaccines really work and are effective, there are serious questions about Iran’s ability to produce them in industrial quantities.

Thanks to this vaccination policy or, rather, lack of policy, there has already been a fifth wave of Covid-19 in Iran and, if the situation continues like this, we will have many other waves one after the other.

‘The queues to cross the border to get vaccines are humiliating’ 

There is, as of yet, no data concerning the number of Iranians who have fled to Dubai or Armenia to get vaccinated, however, Iran’s customs office announced on July 10 that “in the past 48 hours, 1,800 Iranians have crossed the border checkpoint between the two countries”. 

Dr. Hadi Yazdani continued: 

It’s just normal people who feel that they have been left alone in face of the multiple deadly waves of Covid-19 and have no hope to get the vaccine in their country any time soon, who go to try and find a vaccine anywhere they can. Armenia is one possibility: it’s a neighboring country, it’s not expensive and they have enough doses.

The queues to cross the border to get vaccines there are, in one word, humiliating. As an Iranian, when I see that our government is not capable of exercising its basic duties, providing mental and physical health services and security to its citizens, I feel nothing but humiliation.

On July 7, Armenian Ambassador to Iran Artashes Tumanyan announced that vaccination in Armenia will be free. However, only tourists who stay in the country more than 10 days can receive the vaccine.