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Iran, facing another virus surge, reimposes restrictions and focuses on homegrown vaccines

A handout picture provided by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office shows him receiving a dose of locally made coronavirus vaccine COVIran Barekat in Tehran on June 25. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran on Sunday reimposed coronavirus restrictions amid fears that a fifth wave of the virus driven by the delta variant could overrun the country’s health-care system, already battered by U.S. sanctions and the region’s worst cycle of outbreaks.

The latest surge comes as Iran has struggled to import vaccines, prompting the country’s leaders to double down on researching and developing its homegrown vaccines.

On Sunday, the government ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses in the capital, Tehran, and 274 other cities with high numbers of covid-19 cases. It also issued a ban on travel between cities with elevated infection risks.

Iranian Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said Sunday that confirmed cases of covid-19 had increased by 13.2 percent over the last week, while hospitalizations rose by 11 percent and the number of related deaths by 7.2 percent, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

On Saturday, outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that the country was on the verge of a fifth wave of the virus, driven by the influx of the delta variant and a decline in public adherence to infection control measures, Iranian media reported.

“If we’re not careful enough, there is concern that the country will face a fifth wave,” Rouhani told a televised session of Iran’s coronavirus task force.

Rouhani warned that the virus was spreading particularly fast in Iran’s southeastern and southern provinces and blamed it on the delta variant entering through those border regions. Authorities in Sistan and Balochistan province, which has the worst rate of infection in the country, closed the province’s porous border with Pakistan to all but vehicles transporting goods on Wednesday.

The delta variant, first identified in India, has been detected in nearly 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Iran, a country of 85 million, has recorded around 3.2 million cases of covid-19 and nearly 85,000 related deaths — rates that are the region’s highest but also considered an undercount given flaws in official counting methods and the government’s lack of transparency.

Only around 5 percent of Iranians have received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine.

While the country has received doses from Covax, China, Russia and India, Iran has faced difficulties in building up a supply of vaccines, in part because of U.S. economic sanctions that make it difficult for the government and private sector to access foreign bank accounts and conduct many basic international transactions.

U.S. sanctions could impede Iran’s access to coronavirus vaccines, experts say

Further complicating the situation, the office of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in January banned the import of vaccines manufactured in the United Kingdom and United States, citing his distrust of the countries that Iran has been at odds with since its 1979 revolution.

Instead, Iran has focused on its locally made vaccines.

Iran has several vaccines in the works, one of which — COVIran Barekat, produced by the state-controlled Shifa Pharmed Industrial Group — was the first to be approved for local emergency use in mid-June. Iran later issued emergency authorization for Soberana 2, a Cuban vaccine it has partnered up with the communist country to produce.

Against the odds, Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse

Late last month, 82-year-old Khamenei got his first shot of the two-dose Barekat vaccine in front of television cameras. Khamenei said he waited until an Iran-made vaccine was approved for his age group.

“I was not willing to use a non-Iranian vaccine,” he said in a statement released by his office. “Therefore, I said I would wait for the Iranian vaccine because we should appreciate this national honor and as long as there is the opportunity for prevention and cure inside the country, why shouldn’t we use it?”

Iranian authorities, however, have not publicly released data about the efficacy of Barekat, which means “blessing” and is based on the deactivated virus. In February, Shifa said, without providing scientific evidence, that the first phase of human trials showed that Barekat was 90 percent effective in preventing infections.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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