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Iran's Supreme Leader Got A Locally Made COVID Shot But Vaccine Struggles Persist

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives a shot of COVIran Barekat, an Iranian-produced COVID-19 vaccine, in Tehran on Friday.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives a shot of COVIran Barekat, an Iranian-produced COVID-19 vaccine, in Tehran on Friday.

Updated June 26, 2021 at 7:32 AM ET

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. Less than 6% have received at least a first dose. Officials and doctors hope to ramp up the effort, especially as doses of the Iranian-made COVIran Barekat become available.

We don't have anti-vaxxer groups.

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.

Dr. Sina Moradmand gets the Barekat COVID-19 vaccine. The cardiologist was among those who received the shot as part of clinical trials.
Sobhan Farajvan / Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Dr. Sina Moradmand gets the Barekat COVID-19 vaccine. The cardiologist was among those who received the shot as part of clinical trials.

"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.

People ages 70 and over wait to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at an allocated section of the Tehran Shopping Center on May 25. General vaccinations started on Feb. 9 in Iran continued with vaccines from Russia and China and some through the global COVAX network. Now Iran has given emergency authorization for a domestically produced vaccine.
Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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People ages 70 and over wait to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at an allocated section of the Tehran Shopping Center on May 25. General vaccinations started on Feb. 9 in Iran continued with vaccines from Russia and China and some through the global COVAX network. Now Iran has given emergency authorization for a domestically produced vaccine.

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.

A female medical worker wearing a protective face mask receives a dose of the China's Sinopharm vaccine on the third day of mass general COVID-19 vaccinations in a shopping center on May 17 in Tehran.
Majid Saeedi / Getty Images
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A female medical worker wearing a protective face mask receives a dose of the China's Sinopharm vaccine on the third day of mass general COVID-19 vaccinations in a shopping center on May 17 in Tehran.

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.

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