In recent months, Iran’s hospitals, pharmacies, and cemeteries have been witnessing days never seen in its modern history. As the country undergoes one of its darkest periods since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, healthcare facilities have been especially overwhelmed. Moreover, many people have struggled to find needed drugs and over 110,000 people had died of complications from the virus by early September.

According to the nation’s Health Ministry data, nearly 14,000 citizens died over the past Iranian month of Mordad (July 23 – August 22) alone, making it the deadliest month of the pandemic on record. On August 24, Iran announced that 706 people had lost their lives due to the coronavirus, which was the highest daily deaths record to date.

Just a few months after the major international research and pharmaceutical groups announced efforts to develop a vaccine, Iran proclaimed that it was working on its own vaccines to deal with the pandemic. While the news shocked many, both abroad and domestically, it came as no surprise to experts familiar with Iran’s scientific and century-long vaccine production capabilities, as it is the only vaccine producing country in the Middle East.

There are seven different vaccine projects being pursued by Iranian researchers. Chief among them is the COVIran Barekat vaccine.

According to Iranian officials, there are seven different vaccine projects being pursued by Iranian researchers. Chief among them is the COVIran Barekat vaccine, developed by the state-owned Shifa Pharmed Industrial Group, which is a subsidiary of Barakat Pharmaceutical Group. The group belongs to the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO), locally known as Setad, which is under the direct supervision of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Other vaccine projects include the Noora (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Fakhra (Defense Ministry), Razi Cov Pars (Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute), and PastoCoVac (Cuba & Pasteur Institute of Iran).

Ban on Western Vaccines

While the COVID-19 situation in Iran was more or less the same as in other countries initially, it took a drastic turn from late 2020, when the vaccination programs were launched in several major nations.

Notably, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the purchase and importation of U.S. and U.K.-made vaccines in a televised address in January 2021, indicating concerns about their safety. Apparently, the Iranian leader made the remarks following assurances by his advisors, including those in Setad, who declared that the country could produce the needed vaccines to curb the pandemic in just a matter of months. Indeed, Saeed Namaki, Iran’s Health Minister, didn’t waste any chance to praise his ministry’s management of the pandemic and promised that Iran would soon become a global hub of vaccine production.

However, as the world was witnessing a growing number of vaccinations and a gradual return to normal life in some countries, Iranians found themselves hostage to serious mismanagement of the health crisis and political brawls. This mishandling of the pandemic was particularly apparent during the last months of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, who was replaced by conservative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi after the presidential election in June.

Throughout this transition, the country was experiencing yet another wave of the coronavirus; a very limited number of vaccines had been imported, which were used for healthcare workers and the country’s high-ranking officials. Amidst the increasing public criticism of the deteriorating situation, Health Ministry officials blamed their shortcomings on either lack of funds or the U.S. imposed sanctions.

Health Ministry officials blamed their shortcomings on either lack of funds or the U.S. imposed sanctions.

But recent statements by several officials and experts have revealed the influence of an elitist faction in Iran’s health system, including its Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the sole entity for providing licenses of any drug or vaccine imports. Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s coronavirus task force, was quoted by local media on August 11, saying that the authorities had not allowed the purchase of vaccines because they considered them too expensive. Yet, he added, Iran has spent 720 million euros on drugs like Remdesivir alone.

The remarks created an uproar, as they appeared to prove previous allegations about the corrupt role some Iranian power groups play in hindering vaccine importation. The amount was “equivalent to the cost of 100 million doses of vaccines,” tweeted Ali Shariati, a senior member of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, which had also been involved in efforts to import vaccines.

According to Dr. Mahdiar Saeedian, physician and medical activist in the northeastern city of Mashhad, “Iran’s FDA has become the main center of the health mafia in the country.” Speaking to Inside Arabia, he added that: “This is nothing new, it has been the situation for years and many of their [FDA] top managers are all board members of at least one or several pharmaceutical companies. That creates a major conflict of interest which has resulted in the current situation.”

“Iran’s FDA has become the main center of the health mafia in the country.”

In response to recent comments from officials highlighting the money spent on several drugs that were being used to treat COVID-19 patients, Saeedian stated: “many of these drugs are produced locally and are being sold on the black market at unbelievable rates.”

“Of course, these companies would love to witness more delay in importing the vaccines. The amount of sales some of these companies [have seen in recent] months is almost equal to their annual sales in previous years,” he explained further.

Adding to the controversy, while Health Ministry officials were denying any role in blocking various attempts to import vaccines, the Chairman of Parliament’s health commission confirmed that the vaccine importation program was intentionally delayed in support of the locally-made vaccines.

This revelation has created a new round of the blame-game and accusations between the Health Ministry and its critics. Ali Shariati, a senior member of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, was involved in the private sector efforts to import several million doses of vaccine. He told Inside Arabia that “the Health Ministry and their partners,” along with anybody else who played a part in this situation, must be held accountable for their mismanagement, which has claimed the lives of thousands of people.

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Sudden Change of Policy

With the main Iranian vaccine producer, Barekat, falling short of its delivery promises, the deteriorating public health situation has brought the Iranian Supreme Leader to the scene again. Ayatollah Khamenei made another televised remark on August 11, this time describing the pandemic as the country’s “most urgent issue” and declaring that the “Corona vaccines must be accessible for all people [in] any possible way, be it from the domestic production or through imports.”

Many interpreted the change of heart by the country’s Supreme Leader as accepting the failure of local vaccine ambitions to tackle the pandemic—at least in the short run. The statements, which came during the first days of the new government headed by Ebrahim Raisi, were followed by a sudden announcement that the country would be importing 120 million doses of different vaccines over the next three months. Furthermore, in a surprising development, it was made known that even the Pfizer and Moderna would be allowed to be imported. This sudden shift in policy was yet another signal that the Health Ministry authorities had in fact been blocking vaccine importation for many months.

Such realizations created greater public criticism against all Iranian authorities, including the Supreme Leader, with many taking to social media to seek help from the international community. Numerous Iranians are also participating in a campaign, calling for legal action against officials like Health Minister Namaki and his team.

Numerous Iranians are participating in a campaign, calling for legal action against officials like Health Minister Saeed Namaki.

The demand to hold negligent officials and entities responsible comes at a time when the new Iranian President has appointed Mohammad Mokhber – the former head of the Setad, who was directly involved in the country’s vaccine development program – as his Vice President.

Since Khamenei’s announcement, the country has boosted its vaccine importation and Health Ministry data shows that as of mid-September, more than 36 million people have been vaccinated, nearly one-third of them with both doses.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives as a result of the delay in vaccination, and it is hard to foresee that any official or entity will be held accountable for blocking vaccine imports to the benefit of an elitist minority.

Indeed, as Saeedian explained: “Unlike what some people think, the mafia in the health sector is not limited to a specific group or party. You can see people and organizations related to all political spectrums involved in this monopoly somehow.” Thus, seeking justice in the matter would likely be a challenging, uphill battle.