As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis worsens in Iran and the cold and flu season begins, the Iranian public's need for a flu vaccine is greater than ever. But the vaccine is not available to the public and has not been distributed in any medical facility, not even to state-run clinics.
The government has repeatedly announced flu shots are not available to the general public due to sanctions. Health ministry officials have said the US has restricted bank transactions, and "no country is willing to sell vaccines to Iran".
Iranian MP Alireza Salimi, a member of the Majles (parliament) presidium, also has blamed issues related to importing flu shots on "oppressive US sanctions". And Iranian officials have repeatedly denied the US government's oft-emphasized point that food and medications are not under sanctions.
Towards the end of the summer, the government vowed to make flu shots available to at-risk individuals and those over the age of 65. But as of early October, these groups have yet to have access to the vaccine.
Majles received, 'returned', flu shots
On September 29th, Hossein-Ali Shahriari, chairman of the Majles health committee, said the Majles has received 1,500 doses of the flu vaccine. He only admitted this after reports of the distribution leaked.
While ordinary people flock to pharmacies and clinics in pursuit of the flu vaccine without success, it seems that Iranian officials were the recipients of these 1,500 doses.
Faced with public criticism, Majles officials said they had "returned the vaccines to the health ministry so it could distribute them among the public".
Iran has ordered 16 million doses of the influenza vaccine, Shahriari said.
Of those, 1.5 million free doses were allocated for vulnerable individuals, including health workers. Members of parliament have not been named in this group.
In a September 29th report, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) quoted Health Minister Saeed Namaki as saying the government is making efforts to produce a flu vaccine for 20% of the population.
If domestic production is feasible -- contrary to what the public has been told -- why has a vaccine not been already produced, observers wondered, pointing out that in any case, it is too late now to produce a vaccine for this fall and winter.
"Society's demand is currently around 16 million flu vaccine doses, of which more than 1.6 million have been imported," PM Salimi said. "But I criticise the government for not allocating the necessary foreign currency to import enough. And that is the reason for the delay."
In previous years, according to Iranian media, the government had sent imported food and medical items to its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon in lieu of, or ahead of, offering them to Iranians.
That leaves many wondering if this year's flu shots have had the same fate.
Power, wealth essential for vaccination in Iran
Under normal circumstances, "16 million doses are likely enough for the fall season", Dr. Zahra Shojapour, a general practitioner in Tehran, told Al-Mashareq.
"But it is better for everyone to be vaccinated this year because of the pandemic, and the government should have been better prepared," she said.
Shojapour said she is not optimistic about the distribution of vaccines among high-risk groups because "the distribution of essential vaccines in Iran is somewhat in line with power, politics and wealth. Those who are influential or wealthy always have access to vaccination and medication".
The World Health Organisation has recommended that everyone be vaccinated against the flu. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed at least 50,000 lives across Iran so far.
"The government pays around $2.50 for a dose of imported flu vaccine," Dr. Mojtaba Sadat-Ahmari, an Iran-based pharmacist, told Al-Mashareq. "But flu shots are being pre-sold upward of $10 a shot on the black market across the country, especially in Tehran. It is unclear who is selling these vaccines."
The health ministry has announced that pre-selling vaccines is unlawful.
Considering the sharp, daily decrease in the value of the rial against the dollar, only the affluent can afford the vaccine. That said, the vaccine is not even available to them yet, as it is pre-sold, Sadat-Ahmari said.
On September 30th, Iran's health ministry announced that flu shots would be available to the public "within a week". Given that the government has failed to deliver on such promises recently and in the past, many observers are sceptical.