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Iran's Goal Of Coronavirus Vaccine Self-Sufficiency Suffers Setbacks

An Iranian health worker displays the Barekat vaccine to the media before a press conference in Tehran to announce the launch of the second and third phases of the human trials of the locally made vaccine in March.

Iran unveiled its homegrown Fakhra coronavirus vaccine to much fanfare, with officials touting it as a "high-quality" inoculation.

The vaccine was named in honor of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated near Tehran in November and hailed as a "national hero."

But seven months after the launch of the first clinical trials of Fakhra, the production of the vaccine is being discontinued due to what an official this week said was a lack of demand.

The move is the latest setback to Iran's domestic vaccine program, which has been met with widespread mistrust and marred by delays and allegations of corruption.

Iranian officials had boasted that the country's ability to make coronavirus vaccines exemplified its self-sufficiency. In March, the health minister claimed that the Islamic republic would soon become a "world leader" in COVID-19 vaccine production.

Instead, Iran has ramped up its imports of foreign inoculations as its own vaccine production drive hits snags.

The mounting setbacks have provoked public anger. Many Iranians say the goal of vaccine self-sufficiency has delayed the immunization drive and led to thousands of preventable deaths.

Iran is the Middle East's worst-hit country for COVID-19. Nearly 125,000 people have died of the virus in Iran, according to official figures. Health authorities have admitted that the real number of deaths is likely twice as high.

A son of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh receives a Fakhra coronavirus vaccine as Defense Minister Amir Hatami (left) and Health Minister Saeed Namaki (second left) look on at a staged event in Tehran in March.
A son of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh receives a Fakhra coronavirus vaccine as Defense Minister Amir Hatami (left) and Health Minister Saeed Namaki (second left) look on at a staged event in Tehran in March.

Observers say that Iran's opaque vaccination campaign has been guided more by financial self-interest than public health. "It was clear from the beginning that [different] groups started competing on producing homegrown vaccines to access [state] resources," U.S.-based physician Mohammad Kazem Attari told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Attari says the producers of Iran's homegrown vaccines have offered scant details about the inoculations, fueling public mistrust.

'National Honor'

Only one of at least five homegrown vaccines have reached mass production. Around 4 million doses of Barekat, Iran's main coronavirus vaccine, have reportedly been administered.

The Barekat Institute, the producer of the vaccine, had pledged to deliver 50 million doses by September.

The vaccine was developed by Setad, a powerful organization controlled by the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which owns billions of dollars of property that was seized after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives the first dose of the Barekat vaccine in Tehran in July.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives the first dose of the Barekat vaccine in Tehran in July.

Khamenei, who has received the Barekat vaccine, said the homegrown serum was a "national honor" that needed to be cherished.

The supreme leader has banned the import of Western-made vaccines, calling them "untrustworthy." His chief of staff, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, has falsely claimed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has killed several people, with "some countries refusing to accept it."

But many Iranians have opted for foreign vaccines, including those imported from China, Russia, and India. "The center I was vaccinated in offered Barekat and Sinopharm," a Tehran resident told RFE/RL, referring to a Chinese-made vaccine. "The line for Barekat was empty."

The status of two other homegrown Iranian vaccines, Razi COV Pars and Noora, is unclear. Noora was reportedly developed by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). State media have reported that Razi Cov Pars has not received official approval while Noora is still undergoing clinical trials.

Meanwhile, the head of the Fakhra vaccine program told Iran's ILNA news agency on October 19 that the production of the vaccine would be stopped, although he did not specify when.

Ahmad Karimi said 1 million doses of Fakhra had been produced. But he suggested that there was no demand for the vaccine domestically. He said the Defense Ministry, which developed the Fakhra vaccine program, was unable to find enough volunteers for its trials.

Public Anger

The apparent failure of Iran's domestic vaccine-production drive has fueled public anger, with some Iranians questioning why the government devoted so many resources to homegrown inoculations when it could have imported foreign ones.

"The Barekat project has turned out to be [a flop] while Fakhra is due to be discontinued," Iranian journalist Amir Reza Nazari said on Twitter. "Don't we have the right to ask why the import of [foreign-made vaccines] was delayed amid reliance on domestic vaccines?"

"Did you seriously think you could produce a better [vaccine] than Pfizer?" Nazari added.

Sociologist Simin Kazemi has said the politicization of public health in Iran has led to distrust and despair. "Issues such as the production of multiple domestic vaccines with mostly vague efficacy...conveyed the message to society that public health is not of paramount importance and those in charge of public health are after their own interests," Kazemi told the Shargh daily earlier this month.

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Reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh said in late August that there were calls for the judiciary to put on trial those officials who he said were complicit in the "deaths of tens of thousands of citizens."

Under former President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, the vaccination campaign was sluggish. Reports suggested that his hard-line opponents were trying to prevent his government from importing Western vaccines. Rohani was replaced by President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, after an election in June.

Bahram Eynollahi, the current health minister, was among 2,500 doctors who warned Rohani not to import vaccines made in the United States and Britain.

Iran's import of foreign vaccines, the bulk of them Chinese, has increased under Raisi. When Raisi took office in August, only around 3 percent of the population had been inoculated. That figure now stands at around 18 percent, according to figures released by state media.

The authorities have also approved the use of the U.S.-made Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, despite Khamenei's ban on Western immunizations.

In recent weeks, the number of daily deaths and infections has spiked, with officials warning of a sixth wave.

Mehrdad Ghasemfar of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report