Head of Iran’s Razi Vaccine Ali Eshaghi speaks during a press conference after the unveiling ceremony of the locally-made “Razi Cov Pars” coronavirus vaccine, Feb 8, 2021. (AFP)

By Pouyan Khoshhal

November 24, 2021

Recently US pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced it had succeeded in developing an anti-viral Covid-19 pill that reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from the disese by 89 percent. The company has applied to the American Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization. Pfizer also signed a licensing agreement with Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a United Nations-backed public health organization that will allow generic manufacturers to supply this pill to 95 low- and middle-income countries.

The Geneva-based MPP’s stated goal is to bring down the cost of, and increase access to, anti-viral drugs to combat infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C among low- and middle-income families. Its intervention could potentially Pfizer’s new pill accessible to 53 percent of the world population: more than four billion people.

Under this agreement, Pfizer would waive royalties on sales in low-income countries. It would also waive them in the other countries covered by the agreement as long as COVID-19 remains classified as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Earlier the pharmaceutical company Merck had signed a similar agreement with MPP. As of now, Britain is the only country that has approved Merck’s anti-viral pill on an emergency basis. It is expected that other pharmaceutical companies could be ready within a few months to produce the pill.

Iran is one of the 95 would-be beneficiary countries. But the Islamic Republic’s record of importing foreign-made Covid-19 vaccines has so far been patchy, for myriad reasons. This leaves it in question whether – and if so, when – Iranians might get access to this pill, especially in the light of recent glowing reports by Iranian state-controlled media about the domestic production of Covid-19 medication.

A pharmacologist in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous, told IranWire that Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (“Setad”), a massive holdings company under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, wants to be granted a monopoly on Covid-19 medication in Iran.

In 2020, Barekat Pharmaceutical Group, a subsidiary of Setad, announced that it had made a Covid-19 vaccine. But despite the extensive financial support at its fingertips, the company failed to get the vaccine into the necessary mass production. After several months’ delay in importing foreign vaccines and Khamenei’s ban on importing US and British-made products, the government turned to importing the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine to keep the drive going.

In the meantime, the Iranian people suffered from two further surges of coronavirus inside the country, during which even the official, understated number of fatalities sometimes exceeded 700 per day. Now, according to an informed source, Barekat – the firm that failed in the mass production of its vaccine – has begun trying to make other “medication” to treat Covid-19.

A New “Show of Force” by Khamenei’s Underlings

On November 9, Dr. Mehrdad Haghazali, member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee, claimed production of an anti-viral pill in Iran was under study. He went on: “We even have the raw materials for it in the country.” Haghazali emphasized over and over that Iran is capable of making this medication, but gave no detail, saying only that the country’s own Food and Drug Administration would have more information.

A pharmacologist inside Iran confirmed to IranWire that this plan remains in its infancy. “Some steps are being taken. A company that’s part of the Barekat conglomerate has imported some raw materials in the form of a ‘batch’.”

The internationally-accepted definition of  a “batch” is “a specific quantity of a drug or other material intended to have uniform character and quality, within specified limits, and produced according to a single manufacturing order during the same cycle of manufacture.”

This company, which the source refused to name, reportedly plans to produce Molnupiravir: an antiviral oral medication that inhibits the replication of certain viruses and is sometimes used to treat Covid-19 patients. This medication is most effective if taken in the first five days of infection.

“The raw ingredients for this medication are wholly imported,” the pharmacologist said. “Let me put it this way: this company is just going to put it in capsules and package it. We only have the right to say we’ve ‘produced’ the medication if we made the raw ingredients as well.”

Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, had previously claimed on October 30 that “a research team has succeeded in making and synthetizing the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) of Molnupiravir, the first oral anti-coronavirus medication.” According to Fars, for the past several months Raman Group has been working on a project to make Molnupiravir, and the industrial capacity for producing this anti-Covid medication exists in Iran.

The pharmacologist added that the so-called “Raman Accelerator Unit”, a group of students at Tehran University working in the fields of health and pharmaceuticals, have been looking into how this might be done. But nonetheless, he said, “what is clear is that the basic ingredients for Molnupiravir have been imported from outside the country and the plan is to produce it via a company that belongs to Barekat.

 “Setad wants to show off, and wants its affiliate companies to produce this medication. You can be assured that other companies will also enter the field later, but first we have to wait for the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive to put on its show.”

In this practitioner’s view, Iran’s pharmaceutical industry performs well overall and it’s not far-fetched to believe the country could produce some kind of Covid medication. But nevertheless, “coronavirus has made everything political, meaning a ‘drug mafia’. The same happened with vaccines and the only outcome was that more people died.”

At the height of the pandemic, Mohammad Mokhber was CEO of Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive. He repeatedly promised that its CovIran-Barekat vaccine would go into mass production. But the commitment to produce tens of million doses was never fulfilled. Despite this unfortunate record, he is now Ebrahim Raisi’s vice president.

It was in January 2021 that Supreme Leader Khamenei banned the import of Covid-19 vaccines from the US and the UK in a live, televised speech: a ban that according to health experts made way for the fourth and fifth surges of coronavirus in Iran in the spring and summer of 2021. Between the ban and Khamenei’s abrupt volte-face on the matter in August, at least 35,000 Iranians died from Covid-19, in no small part due to vaccine shortages.

Now, Iran is once again witnessing an increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. Some health officials have claimed the sixth wave of the pandemic is already under way in certain cities in Iran. In the midst of all this the government has decided to reopen schools, universities, government offices and sports clubs.

At the same time, the import of foreign vaccines has completely stopped. Not even Sinopharm, with its questionable efficacy, is being procured anymore. Considering the country’s record to date there are concerns that Iranian health officials are gearing up to make the same mistakes again.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.