Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Iranian authorities to redouble efforts to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying their prohibition on the import of U.S. and U.K.-produced vaccines, a lack of transparency, and mismanagement are exacerbating the already dire impact of the coronavirus in the country.
With the number of deaths and hospitalizations on the rise and a reported shortage of hospital beds and medicine in Tehran and other cities, the New-York-based human rights watchdog said on August 19 that the country should use "all resources necessary to secure lifesaving vaccines" and transparently communicate and enforce "effective and clear vaccination and other safety guidelines."
Iran’s death toll from COVID-19 exceeded 100,000 on August 19 with 564 fatalities recorded in the past 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 infections reached nearly 4,600,000 after 31,266 new cases were reported over the past day.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccines are in short supply, with about 5 million people having received the required two doses as of August 18 -- out of a population of 85 million, according to the Health Ministry.
"Public trust is a crucial factor in managing the public health crisis, yet Iranian authorities' track record of repeated failure is happening again," Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher at HRW, said in a statement.
HRW cited the August 14 arrest of six human rights lawyers and activists who were said to be working on filing a complaint against authorities' mismanagement of the crisis. One of them was later released, while the five others remain in detention.
Meanwhile, senior officials have made statements that have "severely interfered with the procurement of lifesaving vaccines and sowed disinformation among Iranians," it said.
In January, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that the “import of [the COVID-19] vaccines made in the U.S. and U.K. are prohibited,” and claimed that the vaccines are “completely untrustworthy.”
The Iranian Red Crescent Society later announced that plans to import 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine donated by a U.S. charity had been canceled.
Iranian authorities have publicly promoted the production of a domestic vaccine, but HRW said no clear information regarding its safety and efficacy had been released, and production appeared to be "seriously behind schedule."
The group said the escalating health crisis and widespread criticism of the way the authorities have handled it may force the government to reverse the prohibition on U.S.- and U.K.-produced vaccines.
On August 10, President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the government to allocate resources to import vaccines, while Khamenei said that jabs should be acquired via "every possible way."
Instead of blaming sanctions and delays in importing vaccines, as well as each other, for the slow rollout of Iran’s vaccination drive, the authorities "should make use of every available resource to respond to the outbreak," according to HRW, including by providing access to "timely and accurate information" about the pandemic, making protective equipment available for frontline workers, and providing access to affordable and safe testing.
The Iranian government should also "publish all procurement contracts as well as an up-to-date vaccine supply and delivery index with price details, date of delivery, and number of doses."
Meanwhile, the United States, which has imposed broad sanctions on Iran should ensure that the Iranian people have "swift, unencumbered, and equitable access to safe, effective, and affordable" vaccines.
In June, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an additional general license for transactions and activities involving the delivery of face masks, ventilators, and oxygen tanks, vaccines and the production of vaccines, COVID-19 tests, air-filtration systems, and field hospitals.