By Pouyan Khoshhal
September 28, 2021
Iran’s vaccination drive against coronavirus has picked up speed over the past month. Last week, the Health Ministry also began to inoculate young Iranian citizens aged 12 to 18, at the same time as the “fifth wave” of infections was said to be subsiding.
Nevertheless Dr. Shervin Shokouhi, head of the infectious diseases department at Loghman Hakim Hospital in Tehran, told IranWire that the risks were still high. As such, he said, “Given that the vaccination of older people is now on track, I see no reason not to vaccinate children too. On average every family is in close contact with at least one child and the child’s chance of becoming a vector for transmission is high.”
A large proportion of the vaccines delivered in Iran have been the Chinese-made Sinopharm, which has not yet been authorized by the World Health Organization (WHO) for minors. According to the WHO, so far only Pfizer has been cleared for use in under-18s. But Dr. Shokouhi dismissed this: “The vaccine has been approved for use in China, and Iran has also taken the necessary steps to use it.”
Earlier Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, president of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, had announced that vaccines made by Sinopharm and Iran’s Pasteur Institute had been licensed for children aged under 18. It came even though not all adults in Iran have yet been fully protected from severe Covid-19.
On September 21, Health Minister Bahram Einollahi claimed that more than 50 percent of Iranians have been vaccinated. He went on to predict that within two or three weeks, 70 percent of the population would be fully inoculated. But according the Health Ministry’s own Information Center, as of September 21 a total of 48,281,975 doses of vaccine had been administered in Iran. Less than 15 million of the recipients had had two doses. Given that there are 60 million Iranians aged over 18, it is not clear how the health minister arrived at the figure he announced.
In Turkey, a neighboring country with a population close to that of Iran, more than 106 million doses of vaccine have now been administered. More than 85 percent of Turks over 18 have received their first dose, and around 70 percent have had both. Unlike Iran, where inoculation of youngsters appears to be starting prematurely and with Sinopharm, Turkey has also mostly been using Pfizer-BioNTech.
The latter country was able to safely reopen schools on September 6 this year, because of the large proportion of the population covered by vaccines. Some believe the Islamic Republic’s decision to start inoculating young people – instead of prioritizing the more Covid-vulnerable adult population – is part of a bid to do the same, although the health minister has denied any such aim.
Alireza Kazemi, the acting Minister of Education, has said the reopening of schools and the start of in-person classes in Iran will take place in three phases. Rural and informal school settings with less than 15 pupils will reopen by October 7, small schools with less than 300 pupils by October 23, urban schools with less than 300 students until November 6, and lastly major urban schools with 300 pupils or more.
“I believe that vaccinating children is very likely to reduce infections and fatalities among the adults,” Dr. Shokouhi said of the plan. “Note that there is no fundamental difference between a young person of 20 and a 15-year-old teenager. Both need to be vaccinated.”
The vaccination of under-18s has got under way in a number of other countries, including the US, Denmark, Spain, France, the UK and Sweden. But only China and the United Arab Emirates have been using Sinopharm for this purpose.
Dr. Payam Tabarsi, head of the infectious diseases ward at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari Hospital, has since added that children aged over seven will be next to be vaccinated, again using Sinopharm. If this happens imminently, Iran will be the only country in the world outside of China to be doing so.
Is a Sixth Wave on the Way?
Pictures posted online show comparatively less crowded wards in hospitals across Iran. Some health professionals have hailed this as a sign that the “fifth wave” of Covid-19 cases is on the decline. Dr. Shokouhi, however, is of a different opinion.
“The sixth coronavirus wave will start long before October or November,” he told IranWire. “We’re still not over the fifth. The numbers of hospitalizations and fatalities have fallen, but they’re still very high. Look at the curve of this surge: it was much steeper and wider than the previous ones. The reason for that is the Delta variant that is highly infectious, while people have been paying no attention to health protocols.”
According to the Health Ministry, compliance with the regulations including mask-wearing and social distancing has now fallen to 41 percent nationwide. “Field observations show that compliance with health protocols has fallen and many people do not wear masks in public,” Dr. Shokouhi said. “We’ve repeatedly emphasized that vaccination does not mean masks and social distancing are no longer needed. But unfortunately, a lot of places like cinemas are open, and travel and gatherings and continue. I personally know of many infected people who boarded planes.
“We must not underestimate the current situation, which is very fragile. We are still riding the peak even though the situation has improved.”
Low Vaccine Efficacy during Coronavirus Peak
Iran’s domestic vaccination drive got off to a slow start for several reasons: Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on importing American and British-made products, allegedly broken promises by Russia and China over contracts, and the health ministry’s reluctance to import foreign vaccines in favor of supporting domestically-made ones. According to Health Minister Bahram Einollahi, by July 22 just five million doses of vaccine had been administered in Iran. In the two months since then, more than 43 million doses were delivered.
Once a vaccine is injected, it can take up to two weeks to take effect. This means that Iranians who received a first dose during the fifth wave remained vulnerable to severe Covid-19. “Many people in Iran received their first dose during the fifth peak,” Dr. Shokouhi said. “Every day I have a lot of patients who’d been infected after receiving the first dose.
“The first dose by itself does not provide the necessary immunity. To reach 70 percent immunity in Iran, something like 60 million people must be vaccinated. The figure show that around 20 to 25 million people were vaccinated during the fifth peak. Even if half or even 40 percent of this number got infected, it means vaccination hasn’t provided the necessary coverage.” The process, he emphasized, must now continue at pace.