November 30, 2021
In recent days, Iranian health officials have warned about the possibility of a fresh flu outbreak coinciding with Covid-19 in Iran.
Earlier this year, it was announced that a domestically-made vaccine would be deployed inoculate people against seasonal flu. But new reports indicate most of that has had to be imported after all. Local manufacturers have only been able to produce some 200,000 doses to date, which are being sold at the same price as imported vaccines but trusted by fewer Iranians.
On November 2, Reza Mosaed, head of clinical studies at Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, on November 2, reported: “In a clinical study to gauge its efficacy, the Iranian flu vaccine was compared with samples of its foreign counterparts.” The next day, the Administration announced that the Iranian-made flu vaccine would be sold in pharmacies for 200,000 tomans ($7.25 at the open market rate).
The price aside, the Iranian-made vaccine will be inaccessible to most Iranians. Initially some 1.5 to 2 million doses were due to be produced inside the country but on October 19, Dr. Heydar Mohammadi, director general of the agency’s drugs and controlled substances division, had conceded that just 200,000 doses would be delivered to pharmacies.
The Iranian government has contrived to make its own flu vaccines for years. Each year, the country has imported more than two million flu jabs for at-risk groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions. This is difficult and expensive, and health officials have continually sought other options. It has been estimated that producing a flu vaccine in-house would save Iranian public coffers $30m to $100m million per year.
In April 2021, Iranian media reported that two companies, Aryogen Pharmed and Nivad Pharmed Alborz, had jointly developed a recombinant quadrivalent seasonal flu vaccine. At the time, Amir Hossein Abdol-Ghaffari, CEO of Nivad Pharmed Alborz, said the firms were planning to jointly produce three to five million doses of this vaccine to make Iran fully self-sufficient in flu jab distribution.
This, Abdol-Ghaffari glowed, would make Iran the second-biggest producer of recombinant flu vaccines in the world after France. That said, he added, some 30 to 40 percent of the raw material would be imported – but “we will reduce this amount”.
The optimum time of the year for patients to receive a flu jab shot is before the autumn. It takes two weeks for the average flu vaccine to take effect, making late September the ideal, before flu cases begin to spike. In Iran this year it took until October for the first jabs to hit the market.
On October 19, Dr. Mohammadi said around 2.5m doses of foreign flu vaccine had been ordered, of which half a million doses had so far arrived. Of these, he said, 1.8m would be distributed free of charge to at-risk groups and the rest would costs 206,000 tomans per dose, about the same as the domestic product.
Ali Fatemi, vice president of the Iran Pharmacists Association, told IranWire that the early batches of vaccines imported from France and the Netherlands had been dished out to pharmacies in October. But since then, no more shipments have arrived.
In the meantime, Fatemi said, most pharmacists were less than enthusiastic about trying to flog the domestic product, trademarked Flu Guard. “The reason is domestic and imported vaccines are priced the same. The one made in Iran was supposed to be much cheaper so people could afford it.” Even the small amount of Flu Guard manufactured is still mostly sitting on the pharmacy shelves, he said, because not many people wanted it.
Fresh Fears for a ‘Twin Pandemic’
Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Gooya, head of the Health Ministry’s Center for Prevention of Infectious Diseases, has recently warned of a local flu epidemic this winter. As of November 24, he said, more than 200 cases of influenza had been diagnosed by medical labs in Iran: likely a fraction of the total.
Dr. Gooya said rapidly-rising flu cases could make the ongoing coronavirus crisis even more severe due to the pressure placed on hospitals. The dominant flu virus observed in Iran has been H3N2, a variant that can infect birds and mammals, and that killed about a million people worldwide in 1986.
On the same day as this gloomy prediction, Dr. Hamid Suri, head of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Health and Prevention Workgroup, said there was a real possibility of a twin flu and coronavirus pandemic. Newly-diagnosed Covid-19 cases remain high in Iran amid what Dr. Suri said was a “50 percent drop” in compliance with health protocols.
Domestic Vaccines: A Losing Game?
This isn’t the first time the Iranian government has poured cash into creating local versions of internationally-recognized vaccines. Last time, the public health consequences were disastrous. Throughout 2020 the promised mass production of an Iranian Covid-19 vaccine never got off the ground; the Supreme Leader-controlled Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (“Setad”) said 50m doses of its CovIran-Barekat vaccine would be available by late August, but failed miserably.
It came after Khamenei had banned the import of American and British-made vaccines, instead declaring the Barekat vaccine would be “a source of dignity and pride for the country.” Instead the official daily number of fatalities again topped 700, and Iran was forced to resort to importing other products, mostly the Chinese-made Sinopharm. Around 35,000 more Iranians died from Covid-19 in the interim, according to official figures.
During that period, too, the political activist Ali Tajernia revealed in late summer that Setad had been selling each dose of Barekat to the government for 200,000 tomans. As of November 21 about 7.5 million doses had been delivered to the Health Ministry, with nine million more due to be delivered after quality control. This means that as of now, another 3.3 trillion tomans – close to $120m – has been added to the personal wealth of Ayatollah Khamenei via a bungled response to a deadly pandemic.
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 742 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending November 25. With 132 deaths, November 23 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 3,368 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 104,024,229.
There are currently 8 Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission. Another 58 are rated orange and 236 are yellow. Currently 146 cities in Iran are on “blue” alert.