TEHRAN — Iranian state TV broadcast the news to the nation: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received the first dose of a new domestically produced COVID-19 vaccine.
Khamenei's website posted a video and photos Friday of the nation's top cleric receiving the shot, noting that the supreme leader, who is in his 80s, had said he would wait his turn and would only accept an Iranian vaccine.
Khamenei even took the step in January of banning government imports of vaccines from the United States and Britain, calling the countries "completely untrustworthy," putting some of the most effective shots out of reach for Iranians.
Whether the supreme leader's publicized injection will help get greater numbers of Iranians vaccinated is unclear.
Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus in the world, has been slow to roll out its vaccination campaign. Only 955,000 people — 1.15% of the population — have been fully inoculated since the country started in February, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Officials and doctors hope to ramp up the effort, especially as doses of the Iranian-made COVIran Barekat become available.
It isn't that there's major resistance to getting vaccinated, according to Dr. Saeed Reza Pakzad with the vaccine section at Tehran's Food and Drug Control Laboratory.
"People look at the vaccine as an opportunity," Pakzad says.
"We do not have the 'anti-vaxxer' groups, or people who hesitate to vaccinate because of religious reasons."
He's standing next to newly arrived boxes of the Iranian vaccine COVIran Barekat (also spelled Barakat), which means "blessing." Iran gave emergency authorization last week for use of the vaccine, which is produced by the state-controlled Shifa Pharmed Industrial Group.
Many Iranians say the main problem is finding a place that has a supply of vaccines to offer.
"They are valuable people"
On a recent morning, a small crowd of Iranians gathered outside a vaccination center in Tehran. It was shuttered and locked because the site was out of vaccines. They lined up to scrawl their contact information onto poster-sized sign-up sheets tacked to the wall, in hopes of getting a vaccination appointment.
A man in his 70s named Goodazi agrees to talk if his family name isn't used (many Iranians are reluctant to give their full names for fear of retribution for speaking with an American reporter). Goodazi is retired and says he has received his first shot of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine and has been trying for weeks to get the second dose. He gestures toward the crowd.
"The people you see here over 70, they are valuable people. In their youth, they were the ones who made the revolution happen," he says, referring to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. "And now, 42 years later, they are in such difficulty that they cannot even be vaccinated by this government."
He adds, "I am sorry, for myself and for this government that doesn't appreciate and respect this nation."
Goodazi shares a common view in Tehran: that well-connected officials and their families and friends have received the best vaccines, while ordinary Iranians are left to fend for themselves.
Sanctions are blamed
At a medical research and testing lab in central Tehran, Dr. Ehsan Alavian says, like many countries, Iran was taken by surprise when the pandemic exploded in the country. He says the early months were a scramble.
"We didn't have protective measures at the beginning for health personnel," says Alavian. "Things like masks, shields, gowns or other protective measures to defeat a respiratory infection."
But over time, he says, Iran began to produce the necessary items, including testing kits, and to increase its supply of oxygen equipment.
When it came to importing vaccines, Alavian says that's where U.S. sanctions caused problems.
Washington sanctions Iran over issues such as human rights, support for militants in the region and Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. says the sanctions aren't meant to target medical items but Iranian officials have alleged that the tough penalties on international business with Iran hinder its access to vaccines.
Iran has largely imported vaccines from Russia, China and India, according to the state media. It has also received doses through COVAX, a program set up by the World Health Organization and other agencies to provide coronavirus vaccines to countries in need. It is also adding a vaccine Iran jointly produces with Cuba to the mix.
Earlier this month, Iran's Health Ministry put the COVID-19 death toll at more than 83,000, with the number of confirmed cases topping 3.1 million, considered the highest tallies in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen if the country will produce and distribute enough vaccines in time to finally contain the outbreak.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Iran has seen about 3 million COVID cases out of a population of 85 million. Now the country is starting to get vaccines in stock. And people want them. But Iranians are frustrated with how long it's taking. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon from Tehran.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: At a lab and vaccination center in central Tehran on a recent morning, Dr. Saeed-Reza Pakzad (ph) displayed boxes of the new Iranian-produced COVID vaccine. It's called Barakat, which can be translated as blessing. And medical centers around the country are waiting for delivery. Pakzad says the Barakat vaccine has cleared trials and been approved by the government. He says it could be a big help in fighting the coronavirus. But he doesn't want to appear overoptimistic.
SAEED-REZA PAKZAD: It has worked very well. It's been very promising. There are not severe side effect. But time will tell.
KENYON: One study puts Iran's vaccination rate at less than 6%. And Dr. Pakzad says there's a long way to go. But one benefit here in Iran, he says, is that they are not faced with large numbers of people who refuse to take the vaccine, as is the case in parts of the United States.
PAKZAD: People look at the vaccine as an opportunity. We fortunately do not have the anti-vaxxer groups or people who hesitate to vaccinate because of religious reasons.
KENYON: But for ordinary Iranians, it's been a frustrating time. Faced with urgent government warnings about the need to get vaccinated, people head to the nearest vaccination center only to find, as often as not, that it's closed. Or if it's open, there are no vaccine doses available. On a recent morning, Iranians gathered outside a vaccination center in Tehran only to find it shuttered and locked up. The staff had left large, poster-sized sign-up sheets outside. And people patiently waited to scrawl their names and contact information in hopes of getting an appointment. A man in his 70s named Goodazi (ph) agrees to talk if his family name isn't used. He wants to avoid possible retribution for speaking to a reporter. He's retired. And he's already received the first dose of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. He's been trying for weeks to get the second dose. He gestures to the crowd.
GOODAZI: (Through interpreter) The people you see here over 70, they are valuable people. In their youth, they were the ones who made the revolution happen. And now, 42 years later, they are in such difficulty that they cannot even be vaccinated by this government. I am deeply sorry for myself and for this government that doesn't appreciate and respect this nation.
KENYON: Goodazi shares a widespread belief here that well-connected officials and their families and friends have been taken care of with the best, Western-produced vaccines while ordinary Iranians are left to fend for themselves. Dr. Ehsen Alavian (ph) works at a lab in central Tehran. He says when the pandemic first hit, Iran, like many countries, was scrambling to get testing and other facilities in gear and up to speed. That, he says, wasn't easy at first.
EHSEN ALAVIAN: (Through interpreter) We didn't have protective measures at the beginning for health personnel, things like masks, shields, gowns and other protective measures to defeat a respiratory infection.
KENYON: But over time, he says, Iran began to produce the necessary equipment and testing kits. And they've been able to increase production of oxygen equipment. Alavian says sanctions did inhibit their ability to import vaccines. Though, they managed to get some from Russia and China. U.S. sanctions over issues such as human rights, support for militants in the region and Iran's nuclear program don't target food or medical items. But Iranians say transactions are still extremely hard to complete. One question on many minds is whether Iran has gotten control of the pandemic or if another wave is coming. Back at his government lab, Dr. Saeed-Reza Pakzad said he'd like to think Iran is past the worst. But he's not counting on that.
PAKZAD: What we hope, the situation will get better. But maybe another wave is yet expected because not many people have been vaccinated.
KENYON: Now Iranians are waiting to see if the government's latest timeline, that the vaccination program will kick into a higher gear this fall, becomes a reality.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran.
(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "PS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.