TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — While much of the world sees vaccination slowing and infections soaring with the spread of omicron, Iran is enjoying a rare, if fleeting, respite from the fear and trauma of the pandemic found.
After nearly two years of back-to-back waves of the virus sweeping the country, belated mass vaccination under a new, uncompromising president has briefly left the troubled nation with a sense of apparent reassurance.
Now the specter of an Omicron-powered surge is looming. Hospitals brace for the worst as infections surge after a months-long hiatus. But so far the variant has not attacked the Islamic Republic, as there are many western countries where most adults have been stung a year ago.
Dramatic flare-ups of infections among people vaccinated from the United States to Russia have highlighted the vaccine’s weakening resistance to infection, although its protection against hospitalization and death remains strong. Meanwhile, the Iranians have been getting doses of late and are feeling off the hook with their still-robust immunity.
“A large number of people have already contracted the virus and numerous vaccinations have been carried out in recent months,” said health official Moayed Alavian, explaining the sharp drop in infections relieving Iran’s overwhelmed health system.
The virus has killed over 132,000 people, according to Iran’s official count — the highest national tally in the Middle East.
Iran’s recently-elected president, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, has made it his mission to speed up imports of foreign-made COVID-19 vaccines. With hardliners in every branch of government, the new government is quickly accomplishing a task complicated by power struggles during the tenure of former President Hassan Rouhani.
The contrast is not lost on ordinary Iranians.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Reza Ghasemi, a Tehran taxi driver. “Suddenly, vaccination happened in a widespread and rapid way after Raisi came into office.”
“By the way,” he added, “I’m grateful.”
But skeptics question presidents’ wildly different responses to the pandemic and criticize the human cost of the country’s factional rivalries.
“We postponed vaccination because of political issues,” reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian said bluntly last September.
Former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull America out of Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers and impose sanctions has doomed relatively dovish President Rouhani and his political camp.
Talks to revive the nuclear deal stalled over the past year, deepening mistrust of the West as hopes of a quick sanctions lifting waned.
Amid simmering anti-American hostility, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of Western gunfire a year ago. Hardliners swept through Parliament, railing against American-made vaccines even as virus deaths shattered records.
To stem a vicious wave of the virus that swept hospitals with intubated patients last summer, authorities urged Iranians to get one of five domestically-made vaccines instead of foreign alternatives.
Rouhani’s health officials struggled when the information they provided was publicly contradicted. resulting in conflicting messages and leaving the vaccination program in tatters. Desperate Iranians poured into neighboring Armenia for replacement cans. In the end, Rouhani’s government only fired 5 million shots.
Now under Raisi, Iran is riding high on its achievements against COVID-19. Cases have dropped to about 7,000 a day from about 40,000 a few months earlier. The death toll fell from peaks of over 700 to 20 a day this month. His government has provided 180 million vaccines since taking the reins in August.
More than 88% of those eligible are fully vaccinated. Iran has administered booster sprouts to 20% of its population. Last week the government announced it would provide vaccines to children under the age of 18.
Like many middle-income countries, Iran has relied on Sinopharm, the state-backed Chinese vaccine, but is offering citizens a smorgasbord of other vaccines to choose from — Oxford-AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V, Indian company Bharat’s Covaxin and its native COVIran Barekat -Vaccine .
In a sign that resistance to Western vaccines has eased, the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca accounts for a significant portion of Iran’s vaccinations. Although Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech remain banned, Some Iranians have described getting the US-made shots through a booming black market.
While Raisi is lauded for a triumphant vaccination program, observers note that the basics of the campaign, including vaccine-sharing agreements and supply issues, were laid down under Rouhani.
“Under Raisi,” Health Ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said in September, “our earlier contracts have been put into effect.”
The foundation for public acceptance was laid a long time ago.
Iran’s historically solid national immunization program has grown out of its struggles against outbreaks of disease from cholera to polio. In response to the El Tor cholera strain that caused a pandemic in the 1960s, Iran produced millions of vaccine doses, distributed American antibiotics to pilgrims, and controlled the spread.
The coronavirus vaccination is the country’s first non-teething mass vaccination campaign since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Western-backed Shah.
Despite Iranian social media being filled with the usual deluge of misinformation about coronavirus vaccinations, only a small percentage of Iran’s population has avoided vaccination.
Rising vaccination rates have fueled a feeling among citizens that they are through the worst of the crisis. Virus restrictions – and public compliance with health measures – have eased significantly. Tehran’s cafes, markets and subway stations are full of maskless guests. Last week, Raisi increased spectator capacity at major sporting events and trade shows.
“I think the disease is over,” said Masoud Navabi, a maskless 39-year-old delivery worker in downtown Tehran.
But authorities fear a nightmarish wave of infection as omicron spreads. Iran recorded its first three deaths from the variant this month. The central city of Ardalan was classified as the country’s first highly infected “red zone” on Wednesday because of the variant.
The country faces its toughest test in the coming months as it marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The events usually involve massive street parties and gatherings.
The country’s modest success against the virus has now given way to uncertainty, officials say. A recent spike in cases shows how fragile its wins against the virus can be.
“All (medical) centers should be on alert,” Deputy Health Minister Saeed Karimi warned. “That’s an alarm bell.”
DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.