Iran begins human trials of its homegrown Covid vaccine

Iran is the nation hardest hit by coronavirus in the Middle East

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Tuesday 29 December 2020 15:35 GMT
Iran begins testing of homemade coronavirus vaccine

The daughter of the man leading one of Iran’s most infamous religious foundations today became the first person in the country to test its homegrown coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday.

Tayebeh Mokbher appeared in good health afterward.

“I am happy not just because I'm the first person to receive the vaccine, but also that our country's science has advanced so much,” she said in a segment broadcast on state television immediately after she took a jab of Blessed Coviran, the country’s still-experimental coronavirus vaccine.

Journalists crowded around her, as a voice in the distance pleaded with them to stand back and maintain social distance. “I hope that this process will result in people being healthy,” she said.

Iran is the nation hardest hit by coronavirus in the Middle East, with at least 1.21 million infections and a reported 54,814 deaths, though many Iranian and international public health officials say the numbers are even higher.

The introduction of a coronavirus vaccine has been controversial, exacerbated by political divisions that have long bedeviled the political elite.

The pragmatist government of President Hassan Rouhani has sought to find ways of importing vaccines from abroad, an option preferred by many Iranians.

But hardliners have been agitating against foreign vaccine imports as potentially dangerous, and are insisting on a homemade option. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has sown mistrust of immunisations by suggesting that foreign powers might manipulate a vaccine to further hurt Iranians.

“Who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Mr Khamenei said in March, addressing US officials. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”

Coviran was developed by Shifa Pharmed, a Tehran-based company which is owned by Setad, a giant holding company and religious endowment valued by American officials at $200 billion. It is formally known as Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order and answers directly to Mr Khamenei.

The Coviran vaccine is based on a chemically weakened coronavirus, similar to polio and smallpox immunisations, as opposed to the newer vaccines based on facsimiles of virus DNA that trigger immune responses. Officials have said the virus will not be ready for general use until the late spring.

In the meantime, Iran is pursuing other vaccine options. On Monday, Iranian officials announced that unnamed United States-based philanthropists were seeking to donate 150,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer to Iran, which is cash-strapped because of several years of harsh American sanctions imposed by the administration of Donald Trump.

Iran has also said that it is also working with an unnamed country - presumably China - to produce vaccines. Mr Rouhani said the country is also considering purchasing vaccines through the World Health Organisation. At a press conference on Monday, he urged the country’s hardliners to stop politicising public health.

“A division and some arguments have happened in our society [about the vaccine],” he said.  “These discussions are neither constructive nor right nor useful.”

The involvement of Setad in the development of Coviran may prove controversial. It has been the target of attention by a veritable industry of mostly Washington-based operatives who have forged careers on opposing the regime in Tehran. Mr Mokbher was for two years on the European Union sanctions list for Setad’s alleged work in supporting Iran’s missile and nuclear programmes. Washington-based anti-Iran hardliners again this month demanded that Mr Mokhber be sanctioned.

Iran prides itself on its scientific achievements. Its nuclear programme, which western nations allege has been used as cover for a clandestine atomic weapons pursuit, is often hawked to Iranian people as a symbol of national technological progress. Iran’s elite scientific universities turn out hundreds of gifted scholars a year - many of them finding success in famed institutions outside the country.

Iran has produced vaccines since the 1920s.

"We have been making vaccines for 100 years,” Iran Health Minister Saeed Namaki said in an interview on state television. “We were the first vaccine developers in Asia and have always provided many other countries with them.”

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