By Pouyan Khoshhal
March 6, 2021
Coronavirus vaccination in Iran started late and is progressing at a slow pace. The start of the new Iranian calendar year, a time when Iranians traditionally travel on a massive scale, is just around the corner. But would-be vacationers must wait for the National Coronavirus Taskforce to determine which destinations are open to travelers, and under which restrictions.
Meanwhile more cases of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom are being reported from various parts of Iran. The number of fatalities from this new strain continues to rise across the board. But no province has been as hard-hit as Khuzestan. All 11 cities on red alert in Iran are located in this province where, on average, around 2,000 new cases of infection are being confirmed every day.
Travel Restrictions During Iranian New Year
A 13-day holiday will get under way on March 21, the Spring Equinox, when the new Iranian calendar year begins. During this period Iranians traditionally visit each other and travel around the country to celebrate Nowruz, literally the “New Day”.
This year, of course, has not been a normal year. Many people who have had to deal with restrictions for a full year feel the need to travel more than ever. But the increasing spread of the new coronavirus variant has thrown this into doubt. Iranian officials still insist that travel to and from cities on “red” and “orange” alerts is banned, and travel between other cities is only permitted according to local health protocols.
The latest Covid-19 figures place 11 cities in Iran are on red alert and 32 on orange alert. This means that, practically speaking, Khuzestan is out of reach: all 11 “red” cities are located in this province. The “orange” cities, meanwhile, are scattered across Iran and, with the likelihood of changes to alert levels in the coming weeks, it is very difficult for Iranians to make travel plans that can withstand the unpredictability.
The latest figures also place 251 cities in Iran on yellow alert and 154 on blue alert. Alireza Raeesi, spokesman for the National Coronavirus Taskforce, said the final alert levels and travel restrictions before new year’s holidays will be announced on Saturday, March 6.
The Third Shipment of the Russian Coronavirus Vaccine Arrives
So far 220,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine and 250,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China have arrived in Iran. This is enough to vaccinate 245,000 people and, according to the National Vaccinations Guidelines which were passed by the National Coronavirus Taskforce, medical staff and health workers who work in ICUs will be the first to be inoculated.
According to Health Minister Saeed Namaki, however, some members of this group have refused to be vaccinated. As a result, the vaccination campaign has partly moved to the second priority group: elderly care home residents, the disabled in care centers and war veterans who survived chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war. Namaki claimed that vaccination of this second group was already nearly complete.
The next shipment of the Russian vaccine, containing 200,000 doses, was due to arrive in Iran by late on Thursday, March 4. The situation of Iran’s share of vaccines gained through Covax, a global initiative aimed at equitable access led by the World Health Organization, is still not entirely clear but it is understood that Iran will receive its first shipment of 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by late March or early April.
A Second Iranian Vaccine Enters Clinical Trials
Clinical trials of Cov-Pars, developed by the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute, began on Sunday, February 28. The institute received a permit from Iran’s Food and Drug Administration to start testing its vaccine on human volunteers on January 16, and in phase 1 of the trial, 13 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 are to receive the test jab.
This recombinant vaccine will be given to people in three doses. The first dose is intramuscular, as is second dose after 21 days, and the third dose will be inhaled on the 51st day. If clinical trials are successful, the Cov-Pars vaccine is will go into mass production by late spring, said Dr. Masoud Soleimani, professor of epidemiology at Iran University of Medical Sciences.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki also announced that if the results of phase 1 are promising, the second and third phases of clinical trials for the CovIran-Barekat vaccine could be combined “so that we can go into production as soon as possible.”
In the past week it has also been reported that phase 3 of clinical trials of the vaccine that Iran’s Pasteur Institute is set to produce in cooperation with Cuba is yet to get under way.
Coronavirus Statistics for the Week Ending March 4
According to daily briefings by the Health Ministry’s spokeswoman Dr. Sima Sadat Lari, on Saturday, February 27, some 7,975 people across the country tested positive for coronavirus. On Sunday, this number exceeded 8,000 and on Monday, March 1, it abruptly jumped to 8,510. This trend continued until Thursday when 8,404 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.
Officially-recorded Covid-19 fatalities, which are likely to be an underestimate of the true death toll, followed the same trend. On Saturday and Sunday the recorded numbers of fatalities were 81 and 93 respectively, but on Monday reached 108. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the number of recorded Covid-19 deaths stood, respectively, at 86, 86 and 78.
In its official submissions to the WHO the Health Ministry only includes patients who have died after testing positive for coronavirus. The true number, as some Iranian health officials have said, could be as many as two to four times higher.
According to Dr. Lari, as of Thursday, March 4, some 3,760 Covid-19 patients were in intensive care units across Iran. Though the ministry does not break down its statistics by city or province, the sudden increase in the number of fatalities has been directly linked to Covid-19 deaths in Khuzestan. During the past seven days, one-third and even one-fourth of the official daily fatalities were recorded to this province.
The Continued Crisis in Khuzestan
In the past two weeks, more than any other province in Iran, Khuzestan has been plagued with the highly contagious variant of coronavirus first discovered in England. An average of around 30 percent of confirmed daily Covid-19 fatalities have been registered in Khuzestan and the number of patients breathing through ventilators has been increasing in this province day by day.
Repeated requests by provincial officials for a two-week lockdown of Khuzestan have been brushed aside by the government. The only response by Health Minister Namaki has been to tell people: “Do not travel to Khuzestan”.
“We have a two-week lockdown of Khuzestan’s border in place, but we do not have a two-week lockdown of Khuzestan itself,” said Khuzestan’s governor, Ghasem Soleimani Dashtaki. He reported that every day around 2,000 coronavirus tests were being conducted in Khuzestan and at least 150 to 200 of those who test positive end up being hospitalized.
According to the latest reports, 1,500 Covid-19 patients are currently hospitalized across this relatively deprived province, 366 of them in intensive care units. Of this number, approximately 60 are breathing through ventilators.
According to Dr. Farhad Abolnejadian, president of Ahvaz Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences in Khuzestan, one of the main factors contributing to the high mortality rate in Khuzestan is that often the patients are brought to the hospitals after it is too late. A review of fatalities logged between February 8 and March 2, he said, shows that one-third of Covid-19 deaths occur within 24 hours of hospitalization, and 70 percent of new patients have to either be connected to a ventilator or die immediately on being brought to emergency wards.
In the past week, at least 123 medical personnel in Khuzestan were infected with coronavirus and five of them were hospitalized.
Flights with 32 Countries Are Suspended
Every day there new reports of infections with the coronavirus variant are surfacing in various parts of Iran. Besides Khuzestan, the most cases have so far been reported in Qazvin, Mashhad and Tehran.
Health officials say that travelers from Iraq are the principal carriers of the coronavirus variant in Khuzestan, while air travelers from other countries have brought the new strain to other parts of Iran. On March 1, Iran’s Civil Aviation Administration announced that all would-be air travelers from Khuzestan must have proof that they have tested negative for coronavirus before a ticket is issued.
The Civil Aviation Administration also suspended all flights to and from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Eswatini (Swaziland), French Guinea, Lesotho, Guyana, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Surinam, Tanzania, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.