An announcement by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week that Russia’s primary coronavirus vaccine candidate has become the first approved foreign vaccine in Iran sparked a fierce debate.
Zarif was in Moscow as part of a diplomatic trip across the Caucasus when he announced the approval of Sputnik V for emergency use and said Iran aims to start co-producing the vaccine in the near future.
The first shipment of 10,000 doses is expected to arrive in Iran on Thursday while up to 400,000 doses are expected in several instalments before the current Iranian calendar year ends in late March.
Healthcare workers and highly vulnerable groups are first in line to receive the limited doses.
However, public and health officials have been locked in a debate over the vaccine.
The first major message of distrust aimed at Sputnik V came from one of Iran’s top infectious disease experts, Minoo Mohraz, who is a leading figure in the country’s efforts to produce local vaccines.
She said she will not use the vaccine because it has yet to be approved by the World Health Organization or the European Medicines Agency, adding that Iran was importing it due to the “Iranian people’s bad fortune”.
Her criticism garnered a harsh rebuke from Kianoush Jahanpour, spokesman of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, who said Mohraz had no “responsibility or status” to weigh in on foreign COVID-19 vaccines.
Iran’s health minister Saeed Namaki said any claims the country is importing unsafe vaccines amount to “malignancy” and “national treason”, adding that Sputnik V was bashed for “economic interests”.
“To the dismay of many who can’t bear to see it, we will give the vaccines to our own families so everyone will know we consider people’s health above our own,” Namaki said on TV.
Iran’s government, meanwhile, rejected claims it is purchasing Sputnik V due to political gains.
On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, said Iran could have accessed the vaccine – which, in August last year, became the first vaccine in the world to receive national approval – much earlier due to its good relations with Russia.
“If the vaccine were to be purchased recklessly and without expert evaluation, the process wouldn’t take this long,” Vaezi said.
However, nearly 100 members of the board of Iran’s Medical Council signed a letter addressed to President Rouhani saying purchasing Sputnik V before international approval could be “dangerous”.
“It appears that diplomatic considerations in this vaccine’s purchase prevented its standard evaluation,” they wrote.
Hosseinali Shahriari, who heads the parliament’s health commission, said he would not use the vaccine, suggesting any foreign vaccines should first be tested on officials.