By Hannah Somerville
January 12, 2021
On Friday, January 8, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran surfaced from obscurity to pour cold water on plans to procure a life-saving Covid-19 vaccine for the Iranian people. Ayatollah Khamenei, speaking in Qom in one of his increasingly rare public appearances, declared in no uncertain terms that the importation of vaccines from the United States and the United Kingdom to Iran was “banned”.
It came within days of Iran’s Central Bank stating that after weeks of uncertainty it had finally managed to make a down payment for 16.8 million doses of vaccine bought via COVAX with the help of no fewer than five Iranian and European banks. Iran is still in the grip of the epidemic and like many other countries, faces a race against time to inoculate its people against this sometimes deadly disease.
The only vaccines currently approved for use are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, which hail primarily from the US and the UK in collaboration with experts from other countries. “Imports of US and British vaccines into the country are forbidden,” Khamenei told the nation in the televised address on Friday. “They wish to test a vaccine on other nations to see if it works or not… They are not trustworthy or reliable.”
Khamenei’s remarks were published on his official Twitter account (and promptly removed by the platform for violating its code of conduct). Apart from having potentially devastating consequences for public health in Iran, Khamenei’s latest missive is also a lie. It comes after similarly false and unhelpful pronouncements by the Supreme Leader in 2020 that sought to present Covid-19 as a “biological weapon” created by the US, and histrionic claims by both Iranian politicians and state media – particularly those linked to the security apparatus – that the Covid-19 vaccine would somehow be weaponized against the Iranian people.
Vaccines are a triumph of modern science. The first ever Western-made vaccine, for smallpox, was developed by the English physician Edward Jenner, who showed that injecting a person with a tiny and ineffective quantity of a disease can trigger an immune reaction and protect the host from the disease’s effects for life.
This and subsequent vaccines – for such catastrophic illnesses as polio, measles, mumps, rubella, Ebola and yellow fever – have gone on to save millions of lives around the world, including in Iran. The fast development of several safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines in particular is a historic event because of the speed at which it happened, the mobilization of tens of thousands of volunteers in the testing process and the unprecedented global collaboration between scientists. It is a cause for celebration, and rapid utilization.
Instead, for ideological and financial reasons, Iran’s Supreme Leader – and countless conspiracy theorists around the world – have seized on Covid-19 vaccines as an opportunity to push their own fantastical narratives. In the case of Iran, Khamenei may be trying to bring UK- and US-made vaccines into disrepute so as to promote the “CovIran-Barekat” vaccine, which is being developed in Iran by the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (Setad): a massive parastatal holdings company that he himself directly controls, and whose successful efforts would therefore be profitable for him personally. Phase I of clinical trials for CovIran-Barekat will involve just 53 volunteers compared to Oxford-AstraZenica’s 1,100, hardly likely to inspire confidence in anyone with a sincere interest in vaccine safety.
Not only are many of the claims being made about Covid-19 vaccines wrong, but in a country like Iran, where a recent survey found only 50 percent of Iranians “completely agree” that vaccines are safe, they could actively endanger people if it puts them off being inoculated. For “ordinary” life to safely resume, 75 to 85 percent of people in the country need to be vaccinated as a minimum, and as such, lying about vaccines for private gain is not something the country can afford. Below are some of the most commonly-cited myths about the Covid-19 vaccines, some of which have been recycled in the Iranian media, and their rebuttals.
- “Covid-19 Vaccines Were Rushed Out, So Can’t be Trusted”
The first Covid-19 vaccines were, fortunately, developed in record time. This is partly because of the massive amount of funding the drug companies had at their disposal due to global recognition of the dangers of Covid-19, and the huge number of volunteers wanting to help and take part.
The US government also allowed Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to start mass-producing their vaccine while still awaiting the outcome of clinical trials, which ended up saving crucial time. “This was a gamble,” Lior Brimberg, an assistant professor at the Feinstin Institutes for Medical Research, told NBC. “If the Food and Drug Administration deemed the vaccines not safe and effective, those doses would be no better than trash. But it’s a bet that seems to have paid off.”
The new technology used in the approved vaccines uses messenger RNA (mRNA) instead of the traditional “deactivated” form of the virus. While this is the first time it’s being used, researchers have been working on this vaccine strategy for more than three decades. Moreover, Covid-19 is similar to other coronaviruses like MERS and SARS, so previous research helped to speed up the development process.
The clinical trials followed recognized good practice and, in themselves, were not rushed at all. Phase III of trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine alone involved some 30,000 people.
- “The Technology in Covid-19 Vaccines Alters Your DNA”
This is a falsehood that has been shared by media outlets linked to the Kremlin to discredit UK- and US-made vaccines (despite the fact that Sputnik, the Russian would-be vaccine, utilizes the same technology), and by “celebrity” conspiracy theorists online who make money from people viewing their scientifically-bankrupt videos on YouTube.
The new vaccines use messenger RNA, which delivers instructions to the body on how to make a piece of the “spike protein” unique to SARS-CoV-2. Since only part of the protein is made it does no harm to the person, but does cause the immune system to begin making antibodies and T-cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection, in turn protecting the person.
The confusion has arisen because some people believe an mRNA vaccine could change human DNA, allowing Covid-19 to “wrap itself into your system” or potentially be used for nefarious purposes.
Rob Swanda, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the University of Cornell, has created an explanatory video on this subject and told IranWire’s correspondents last month why there is no reason to worry. “In our bodies,” he said, “the flow of genetic information goes from DNA to RNA to the proteins. It does not go the other way. DNA is located in the nucleus of the cell, and RNA will not go there. Even on the tiniest slight off-chance that it could get in, the molecules are different and can’t interact.”
- “Covid-19 Vaccines Will Plant Microchips in People”
Conspiracy theories, as noted in IranWire’s recent article on the Rothschilds conspiracy theory, are attractive to some people because they place humans at the center of the narrative and provide simple answers to complex questions. In a time of crisis, confusion and upset, many people prefer to pretend that a small group of powerful people are at fault because it simplifies the story into a digestible “us vs them” narrative.
The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, has been the target and focal point of these fantasies since the outset of Covid-19. Early on he announced that his $40 billion-foundation would shift its “total attention” to fighting SARS-CoV-2.
Peddlers of conspiracy theories, including mass media outlets, have claimed Gates and others are using the Covid-19 vaccine to implant people with tiny RFID microchips so as to track and influence their behavior, location, politics and/or spending habits.
Most of the “evidence” these theories rely on has been doctored and is based on statements that were never made. They appear to have spun out from proposals by Gates for a system to track financial inclusion in 2013, and in March 2020 for a system of “digital certificates” to show who had been vaccinated, which might be immensely useful but in any event has not yet been rolled out.
Another seized-upon video was a CBN interview with Jay Walker, CEO of syringe-making company Apiject, in which he talks about an optional barcode-like label for the vaccine. The original video is clear that this “chip” would be to distinguish the real vaccine from counterfeit or expired doses, and would be fixed to the outside of the syringe, not injected along with its contents. Similar claims that the British government is planning to make people wear RFID microchip bracelets have also been based on fabricated evidence.
Lists of vaccine ingredients have been shared by both Pfizer and Moderna and a microchip is not among them. The smallest known microchip in existence is currently 1mm x 1mm, whereas the diameter of a standard syringe is 0.5mm. Moreover, as Slate magazine rightly points out, RFID microchips would be an energy-intensive and totally impractical means of tracking people, let alone controlling them.
- Vaccines are Part of a Population Control Project
The myth that Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines are part of a global campaign to reduce and/or control populations has been repeated many times, including by Iranian media (pointing, unsurprisingly, to the US, Israel and occasionally the Baha’i community as the ostensible culprits).
Twelve months down the line, no credible evidence has been found in any country that scientists or politicians deliberately contrived to create SARS-CoV-2, or are now engaged in acts of deliberate harm by administering the Covid-19 vaccine.
Early speculation that the virus targeted certain types of people using genetic data – including Iranians, as claimed by Khamenei – were debunked not only by scientists at the time but by the devastating effect that Covid-19 went on to have on populations and different demographic groups all over the world.
Claims that the vaccine might, in turn, be designed to kill many people are based on twisted versions of real public statements and there remains no evidence for this either. For instance, in a May 2020 interview Bill Gates spoke theoretically about the side effects of a future vaccine, suggesting one in 10,000 people might experience side effects (or a total of 700,000 patients worldwide). This was re-packaged as a claim that 700,000 people would “die” from a vaccine when he had said no such thing.
Similarly between September and December 2020, Tasnim News Agency and an Iranian MP falsely reported that Gates planned to reduce the world’s population by 10 to 15 percent using a Covid-19 vaccine. As IranWire has reported, this was based on a 2010 TED talk in which Gates said, rightly, that better access to healthcare and vaccines led to lower infant mortality rates, meaning people generally chose to have fewer children. He said world’s dangerously-fast population growth could be slowed by 10 to 15 percent as a result of better health provision, but noted the population would still continue to grow and this was not undesirable.
- “The UK Vaccine Uses Aborted Fetuses”
One of the more bizarre narratives to surface in November 2020, which has its basis in much older anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, was a claim that the Oxford-AstraZenica vaccine developed in the UK contained cells from an aborted male fetus.
The presenter of the viral video inaccurately quoted a scientific study in which the authors described analyzing the vaccine in “MRC-5 and A549 cell lines”. They found the Wikipedia entry for MRC-5, which correctly states the culture was originally developed from research “deriving lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male fetus”. But they then used it to wrongly claim this was on the ingredients list of the new Covid-19 shot, despite the fact that this research took place in 1966.
It is common for vaccines to be grown in labs using cultures that contain human cells. Both MMR vaccines, the shingles vaccine and both chickenpox vaccines are grown using human cell strains.
Steve Pritchard, spokesman for the Vaccines Public Affairs Directorate at Oxford University, told the i newspaper that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines also do not use MRC-5 at all, but a different cell line, HEK-293. The original cells for HEK-293 were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973. “HEK-293 cells used nowadays are clones of those original cells, but are not themselves the cells of aborted babies,” he confirmed.
- “Vaccines Aren’t Necessary Because We are Already Immune”
Some pseudo-scientists have recently tried to claim that mass inoculation against Covid-19 is not necessary because a “substantial” proportion of the population already has immunity.
This is clearly false, as clinical trials for Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca all showed that many more people in the placebo groups who did not receive a dose of the trial vaccine went on to contract Covid-19, meaning they were not immune to SARS-CoV-2 at the time of the trial.
During 2020, several heads of state – including, allegedly, President Hassan Rouhani – were at one stage or another attracted to the notion of so-called “herd immunity” as an approach to managing Covid-19 in their countries. The approach involves allowing a large uncontrolled outbreak in the low-risk population to build “natural” immunity to the disease across the board.
Not only could this be tantamount to genocide in some countries, as up to 30 percent of people may be especially vulnerable to severe Covid-19, but as an international consortium of scientists has observed, “There is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection… Such a strategy would not end the Covid-19 pandemic but result in recurrent epidemics.” The virus has already mutated and there have been multiple documented cases of people coming down with Covid-19 more than once.
Therefore, there will never be a “safe” time not to vaccinate people people en masse against Covid-19. With vaccines now available, this should be undertaken as quickly as possible in all countries badly affected by the epidemic, including Iran. In pursuit of financial gain and ideological point-scoring, the Supreme Leader appears briefly to have forgotten this.