Vaccine purchase possible despite sanctions

DUBAI (AP) — Although Iran faced crushing United States (US) sanctions, there were still ways for Tehran to obtain coronavirus vaccines as the country suffers the Mideast’s worst outbreak of the pandemic.

After earlier downplaying of the virus, Iran had since acknowledged the scope of the disaster it faced after 1.1 million reported cases and over 52,000 deaths. Getting vaccines into the arms of its people would be a major step in stemming the crisis.

But while Iran was able to obtain vaccines, challenges remain ranging from sanctions imposed under United States (US) President Donald Trump to the logistics of mass vaccination-making.

Iran had signed up for COVAX, an international programme designed to distribute coronavirus vaccines to participating countries around the world. That programme was run in part by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. Gavi said the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control had already issued a license for Iran to take part. The Treasury declined to comment.

Iran alleged the US sanctions had affected its ability to purchase medicine and vaccines. They did have specific carve-outs for medicine and humanitarian aid to Iran. However, international banks and financial institutions would hesitate in dealing with Iran transactions for fear of being fined or locked out of the American market.

People wear protective face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in downtown Tehran. PHOTO: AP

Those sanctions, however, would not stop Iran from flying a load of cash to Geneva to pay for its participation in COVAX. Gavi declined to offer any information about Iranian payments or orders, though Iran under its rules at a maximum could order vaccines for 50 per cent of its 82 million citizens.

Spokesman at Iran’s mission to the United Nations (UN) Alireza Miryousefi, criticised the US for its sanctions and banking restrictions, which he said “cruelly put many obstacles in the way of Iran receiving the COVID-19 vaccine”.

“Nonetheless, along with our own indigenous vaccine trials, we fully expect the international community and the relevant international drug companies to fulfill their humanitarian obligation and expedite all our orders,” Miryousefi said.

Local efforts to produce a vaccine had not begun in earnest, meaning the Republic might need to rely on those abroad.

When it came to childhood vaccinations, Iran has nearly 100 per cent success in inoculations, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. People from surrounding countries often came to Iran for medical care as well. Iran’s hospitals, doctors and nurses were known as some of the best in the wider Middle East, with a network of clinics from villages to big cities. State-run facilities offered subsidised care, while private hospitals could be incredibly expensive.

However, there were questions about the logistics of a mass vaccination drive. Iran’s ageing fleet of aircraft likely would need to fly to pick up vaccines made abroad. Many airlines do not fly into Iran due to sanctions. Keeping vaccines ultra cold, like in the case of Pfizer-BioNTech’s required minus 70 degrees Celsius, also likely would be a challenge. Director of the scientific commission at Iran’s National Headquarters for Combating the Coronavirus Mostafa Ghanei, reportedly said that Iran did not want the Pfizer vaccine for that reason.

Early in the pandemic, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei floated an unfounded conspiracy theory claiming the virus could be man-made by America. In those March remarks, he suggested that “possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more”. Those remarks appeared aimed at dismissing any US assistance out of hand from the Trump administration, but Iranian officials also now increasingly criticised US President-elect Joe Biden.

Iran looked at Chinese and Russian vaccine options. However, if it relied on COVAX for the vaccines, the cooperative could choose to issue it American-made vaccines. There’s a cost implication as well for Iran if it decides to choose which vaccine it wants from COVAX. It would need to put up USD3.50 a dose in advance to have the ability to refuse the vaccine offered, as opposed to USD1.60 per dose. If Iran chose to offer a deposit to vaccinate half its population through COVAX, that means a USD143.5 million as opposed to a USD65.6 million initial payment.

Since the 1979 US Embassy takeover and the 444-day hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran had been subject to a series of changing economic sanctions. Some were lifted under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for that relief. In 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from that accord, re-invoking sanctions that had crushed Iran’s long-anemic economy.

Trump said he pulled out of the deal over Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its regional ambitions and other issues — all of which were not part of the 2015 deal. Biden had signalled he could return America to the deal if Iran agreed to again honour its limits. However, a series of escalating incidents over the last year and a half across the Mideast had raised tensions between Tehran and Washington.