Virus-ravaged Iran finds brief respite with mass vaccination

Tehran, Iran – As much of the world sees vaccination slow and infections soar with the spread of omicron, Iran has found rare, albeit fleeting, respite from anxiety and trauma of the pandemic.

After successive waves of the virus hit the country for nearly two years, a belated mass vaccination under a hardline new president has, for a brief moment, left the nation stricken with an apparent sense of security.

Now the specter of an omicron-fueled push looms. Hospitals brace for the worst as infections rise after a month-long lull. But so far, the variant has not beaten the Islamic Republic as it has many western countries where most adults received beatings a year ago.

Drastic surges of infection among those inoculated from the United States to Russia have revealed the decline of the vaccine’s defenses against infection, although its protection against hospitalization and death remains strong. Meanwhile, Iranians have received doses more recently and feel off the hook with their still robust immunity.

The virus has killed more than 132,000 people according to Iran’s official tally – the highest national toll in the Middle East.

The contrast is not lost on ordinary Iranians.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Reza Ghasemi, a taxi driver from Tehran. “Suddenly vaccination happened in a widespread and rapid fashion after Raisi came to power.”

“By the way,” he added, “I’m grateful.”

But skeptics question the presidents’ starkly different responses to the pandemic, criticizing the human cost of the country’s factional rivalries.

“We delayed vaccination because of political issues,” reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian said bluntly last September.

Former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull America out of Tehran’s historic nuclear deal with world powers and pile on sanctions has doomed the relatively moderate President Rouhani and his political camp.

Talks to revive the nuclear deal have stalled over the past year, deepening mistrust of the West as hopes for a quick sanctions relief faded.

As anti-American hostility simmered, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of Western clichés a year ago. Hardliners have swept parliament and railed against US-made vaccines even as virus deaths hit record highs.

Scrambling to contain a vicious virus wave that flooded hospitals with intubated patients last summer, authorities have urged Iranians to get one of five domestically produced vaccines instead of foreign alternatives.

Now under Raisi, Iran is riding on its successes against COVID-19. Cases have fallen to around 7,000 a day from some 40,000 a few months earlier. The death toll has dropped to 20 a day this month after peaks of more than 700. His administration has provided 180 million vaccines since he took the reins in August.

More than 88% of all vaccine-eligible people have been fully immunized. Iran has given booster shots to 20% of its population. Last week, the government announced that it would make the vaccines available to children under 18.

Like many middle-income countries, Iran has relied on Sinopharm, China’s state-backed vaccine, but offers citizens an assortment of other vaccines to choose from — Oxford-AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V, Indian company Bharat’s Covaxin and its local COVIran vaccine Barekat.

In a sign that resistance to Western vaccines has softened, Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca accounts for a substantial amount of Iran’s inoculations. Although Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech remain banned, some Iranians have described receiving the US-made vaccines through a burgeoning black market.

While Raisi gets credit for a triumphant inoculation program, observers note that the fundamentals of the campaign, including vaccine-sharing deals and supply issues, were established under Rouhani.

“Under Raisi,” health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said in September, “our past contracts have come into effect.”

The foundations for public acceptance were laid long before.

Iran’s historically robust national immunization program grew out of its battles against epidemics ranging from cholera to polio. In response to the El Tor strain of cholera that spawned a pandemic in the 1960s, Iran produced millions of doses of vaccine, distributed American antibiotics to pilgrims, and controlled the spread.

The coronavirus vaccination marks the country’s first mass inoculation campaign outside of childhood diseases since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Western-backed shah.

Although the usual flood of misinformation about coronavirus injections fills Iranian social media, only a small percentage of the Iranian population has avoided the injection.

The increase in the vaccination rate has fueled the feeling among citizens that they have weathered the worst of the crisis. Virus restrictions – and public compliance with health measures – have notably eased. Cafes, markets and metro stations in Tehran are full of customers without masks. Last week, Raisi increased spectator capacity at major sporting events and trade shows.

“I think the disease is over,” said Masoud Navabi, a 39-year-old maskless delivery man from downtown Tehran.

But authorities fear a nightmarish wave of infection as the omicron spreads. Iran recorded its first three deaths from the variant this month. The central city of Ardalan was listed as the country’s first high infection “red zone” on Wednesday due to the variant.

The country faces its toughest test in the coming months as it marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution and Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The events usually involve celebrations and massive street rallies.

The country’s modest success against the virus has now given way to uncertainty, officials say. A recent surge in cases reveals just how fragile its gains against the virus can be.

“All (medical) centers must be on alert,” Deputy Health Minister Saeed Karimi warned. “It’s an alarm bell.”

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DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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