https://www.rferl.org-By Golnaz Esfandiari
An Iranian health worker displays Iranian ”COV Iran Barekat” to the media in Tehran before a press conference to announce the launch of the second and third phases of the human trials of the locally made vaccine on March 15.
Iran is boasting that its ability to make coronavirus vaccines exemplifies its self-sufficiency, with one top official comparing the feat to its ability to build missiles.
“Just as we were forced to manufacture missiles ourselves, we produced a coronavirus vaccine,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on March 15, the semiofficial news agency ISNA reported.
Despite Tehran posing as a vaccine-manufacturing hub, its coronavirus vaccine candidates are still undergoing trials and have not received official approval.
Instead, the country has bought Russian, Chinese, and Indian injections amid a sluggish, opaque vaccination campaign launched last month with a small number of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V. Authorities say health-care workers and those with chronic conditions are currently being inoculated.
The latest Iranian coronavirus vaccine to emerge with scant details about it is named Fakhra after the country’s late nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated near Tehran in November.
Fakhra was reportedly first unveiled on March 16, when its first clinical trial was launched in a ceremony attended by senior officials, including Health Minister Saeed Namaki. The minister pledged that Iran would soon become a “world leader” in COVID-19 vaccine production.
One of Fakhrizadeh’s two sons, Hamed Fakhrizadeh, became the first volunteer to receive a test dose of Fakhra, which was produced by the Defense Ministry’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. The department was previously headed by Fakhrizadeh, whose killing has been blamed on Israeli agents.
An official claimed Fakhra was “100 percent safe” and the government said it had some 20,000 volunteers to officially test it.
The Health Ministry has said it will vaccinate all Iranian adults by September, a goal that many find overly optimistic.
Iran launched a human trial of at least two domestic vaccines last year that it hopes will be help curtail the spread of the pandemic, which Tehran has desperately struggled to stem since it emerged there more than a year ago.
Some 1.76 million Iranians have contracted the virus and nearly 61,500 have died of COVID-19 as of March 16, according to official figures. The actual number of infections and dead from the pandemic is likely to be two or three times higher, officials and experts have said.
Iranian officials say they have so far received 410,000 doses of Sputnik V, 250,000 shots of China’s Sinopharm, and 125,000 doses of India’s COVAXIN vaccine. Tehran has also accepted 100,000 doses of the unapproved Cuban Soberana-02 vaccine, which will be administered to 100,000 people in the third phase of its human trial.
An additional 375,000 doses of COVAXIN are expected in the country by March 17, bringing the total number of imported shots to 1.26 million.
Despite a ban on U.S. and British coronavirus vaccines by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian health officials said in early February the country will also receive more than 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine under the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccine-distribution project.
Use of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca shots are currently being shelved by several European countries after reports of health problems in people who had received the vaccine.
Iranian officials have added that they eventually expect to import more than 16 million doses of vaccines from COVAX, which could inoculate nearly 10 percent of the country’s some 84 million people.
Mostafa Ghanei, the director of the Scientific Commission in Iran’s National Headquarters for Combating the Coronavirus, said in an interview in February that the country will need 160 million doses of coronavirus vaccines in order to bring the pandemic fully under control.
Speaking on March 15, Zarif blasted Western countries for hoarding vaccines “three times more than they need” and accused the United States of hampering Tehran’s access to vaccines through tough sanctions and financial restrictions imposed under ex-President Donald Trump.
“Can those who prevented the transfer of our money for purchasing vaccines say that they learned a lesson in humanity and humility from the coronavirus outbreak?” Zarif asked, failing to mention Khamenei’s January ban on Western-made vaccines.
That act by the supreme leader has been blasted as a politicization of the health and well-being of Iranians, who have been hit harder by the pandemic than any other country in the Middle East.
Khamenei has called U.S.- and British-made vaccines “untrustworthy,” while his chief of staff, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, recently falsely claimed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had killed several people, with “some countries refusing to accept it.”
Golpayegani made the comments while praising Iran’s main vaccine candidate, Barekat, which is being developed by Setad, a powerful organization controlled by Khamenei’s office that owns billions of dollars in property seized after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.