Iranian authorities’ prohibition on procuring US- and UK-produced vaccines, lack of transparency, and mismanagement are exacerbating the already dire impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Iran, Human Rights Watch said today.
Iran is experiencing a “fifth wave” in the pandemic with a daily death toll of at least 655 and a total of almost 100,000 deaths as of August 18 based on the government’s official statistics. Iranian authorities should urgently redouble efforts to respond effectively to the crisis, including by using all resources necessary to secure lifesaving vaccines and transparently communicating and enforcing effective and clear vaccination and other safety guidelines.
“Iranians are expressing their anger at the authorities’ incompetence and lack of transparency in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, which is costing an Iranian life every few minutes,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Public trust is a crucial factor in managing the public health crisis, yet Iranian authorities’ track record of repeated failure is happening again.”
The number of deaths and hospitalizations in Iran is on the rise, and social media reports indicate that there is a shortage of hospital beds and medicine in various cities. On August 14, Iranian authorities arrested six prominent human rights lawyers and activists who, according to their colleagues, were working on filing a complaint against authorities’ mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis. Authorities released one member of the group overnight, but human rights defenders Arash Keykhosravi, Mehdi Mahmoudian, Mostafa Nili, Mohammadreza Faghihi, and Maryam Afrafaraz remain in detention.
Iranian officials have blamed sanctions and delays in importing vaccines, as well as each other, for the slow roll out of the vaccination problem, without providing clear evidence of their claims.
Senior Iranian officials have made statements that have severely interfered with the procurement of lifesaving vaccines and sowed disinformation among Iranians. On January 8, 2021, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in a speech that “import of [the Covid-19] vaccines made in the US and UK are prohibited.” In a tweet that was hidden by Twitter due to its violation of the company’s “Covid-19 misleading information policy,” Khamenei claimed that vaccines made in the US or the UK are “completely untrustworthy. It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.”
This policy has had serious consequences for Iranians’ right to health and ability to access lifesaving vaccines. On January 9, Dr. Mohammad Hassan Ghousian Moghadam, head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, said plans to import 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine donated by an US charity had been canceled.
Covid-19 vaccines are in short supply in Iran. According to the Health Ministry’s statistics as of August 18, only 5,063,519 people have received the required two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine out of a population of 85 million. Iran has only approved vaccines that require two doses for full vaccination.
Over the past year, Iranian authorities have prioritized and publicly promoted the production of a domestic vaccine – COVIran Barekat – in which it has reportedly invested substantial government resources. However, neither Iranian authorities nor the state-owned company producing the vaccine have released clear information regarding the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Experts have raised concerns over this lack of transparency. And it appears that production is seriously behind schedule.
Faced with an escalating health crisis and widespread criticism of the way the authorities have handled it, the government may reverse the prohibition on US- and UK-produced vaccines. On August 10, President Ebrahim Raeesi, who originally supported Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban, ordered the government to immediately allocate resources to import vaccines. On the same day, Ayatollah Khamenei also said that vaccines should be acquired through “every possible way.” After several weeks of a rising death toll and hospitalizations, Iranian authorities announced a six-day general lockdown starting on August 15.
Current and former Iranian government officials are publicly trading blame over the government’s failed pandemic response. On August 11, Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s Covid-19 response task force, told reporters that the country’s total vaccine supply would only last another five days. Zali also claimed that Iran’s ambassadors did not invest adequate effort in securing foreign vaccines for import and that senior officials told health officials to mislead visiting WHO officials about Iran’s urgent pandemic-related needs and the country’s real death toll.
In response, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed