By Pouyan Khoshhal
February 22, 2021
With the slow pace of vaccination and the spread of the highly contagious UK coronavirus variant to a number of cities, Iranians fear a new crisis. Borders between two Iranian provinces and neighboring Iraq have been closed and ICU beds in some populous cities such as Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan, are at capacity.
Meanwhile Iran still does not have enough vaccine doses to even inoculate its medical personnel and health workers, and government officials are hoping that vaccines procured from the World Health Organization’s Covax program will arrive within two weeks to deal with this shortage.
UK Variant Cases Rising
In recent weeks infections by the UK coronavirus variant have been rising in Iran, especially in Khuzestan province, where the number of cases has increased noticeably and some hospitals are at capacity. This trend is fast spreading to other parts of Iran and reports from other provinces show that the variant has been detected in other cities as well. Health Ministry officials have confirmed that the mutated virus is deadlier and more contagious than the original one.
According to Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeesi, who is also the spokesman for the National Coronavirus Taskforce, infection with this variant creates more symptoms in younger patients and it is 30 percent more lethal than the original virus that started in the Chinese city of Wuhan. “Based on evidence that we have, this variant has definitely spread around the country, but it has not replaced the original virus,” he said. “We have found clusters of the variant in Ahvaz, Qazvin, Tehran and Alborz, but they are small clusters.”
“Studies show that younger people are more prone to infection with this coronavirus variant,” First Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said. “The important point is that today the only way people can prevent infection by this virus is to follow health guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands with soap and water and observing social and physical distancing.”
Iran to Close Border with Iraq
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli unveiled plans to close the border with Iraq in the southwestern province of Khuzestan in an attempt to contain a new wave of the pandemic. He said border crossings with Iraq will be closed and travel between cities in Khuzestan province will be prohibited. He also expressed hope that cooperation from people would help control the situation in Khuzestan ahead of the Iranian New Year’s holidays that start on March 21.
Kermanshah Coronavirus Taskforce also announced that the borders of this western province with Iraq have been closed to keep the new coronavirus variant out. According to Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences, drivers of vehicles that are passing through the province are exempt, provided they test negative for the virus at the border.
First Shipment of Chinese Vaccine to Arrive Soon
So far Iran has imported 120,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine, all of them the Russian Sputnik vaccine. Since each person must be inoculated twice with the vaccine, this is enough to vaccinate 60,000 people, including around 34,000 who work at ICUs in state and private hospitals and in treatment centers run by charities.
The plan is that after the vaccination of medical staff, who number less than one million, priority will be given to other high-risk groups such as the elderly and people with underlying conditions. However, Iran’s Medical Council has sent a letter to the Health Ministry asking the government to give priority to artists who make movies and TV shows or even entertainment on social media. The Health Ministry has yet to respond to this request.
Earlier, Health Ministry officials announced that they intend to procure Chinese and Indian vaccines in addition to the Russian one, although nothing is known about the volume of these planned purchases because the Health Ministry says it is “negotiating” with the countries that produce the vaccine.
“To procure the Chinese vaccine a series of documents were necessary that have now been delivered to the Food and Drug Administration and we hope to receive the first shipment of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, around 250,000 doses, in seven to 10 days,” Raeesi said. “We have a contract with them for another two million doses.”
The Indian vaccine, called COVAXIN, is to be procured from Bharat Biotech, Raeesi said, adding that a letter of understanding has been signed with the Indians but nothing has yet been finalized. If this deal goes through Iran will receive a million doses in the spring.
Raeesi also announced that in two weeks’ time Iran will receive 4.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through Covax, an initiative run by the World Health Organization to provide a more equitable access to coronavirus vaccine.
Tourism Sector Ravaged
The number of foreign visitors to Iran plunged 94 percent in the first nine months of the current Iranian calendar year (which started on March 20, 2020), compared to a year earlier, government data show. “Some 450,000 foreign travelers arrived in Iran mainly for medical or trade purposes during the first nine months of the year… Restrictive measures to tackle the new coronavirus have reduced international travel to the country by 94 percent,” Vali Teymouri, the deputy tourism minister, announced on Wednesday.
“Over 1.5 million jobs have been lost in the tourism sector of Iran due to Covid-19…. Many of the tourism staff are now unemployed or they are staying at home,” Tourism Minister Ali-Asghar Mounesan said in December. According to the minister 8.7 million foreign nationals visited Iran during the previous [Iranian] year, and Iran was ranked as the second fastest-growing country for tourism based on data compiled by the World Tourism Organization. “At the onset of coronavirus tourism faced a sharp decline in the world, including in our country,” Mounesan said. “So in the first three months of the current [Iranian] year the number of foreign tourists dropped to 74, almost zero!”