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Iran: Khamenei’s Reckless Ban on Covid-19 Vaccine

Authorities’ Unsubstantiated Claims Threaten Iranians’ Health

Paramedics work in a laboratory that tests samples taken from patients suspected of being infected with the new coronavirus, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, March, 10, 2020. © 2020 AP

(Beirut) — The Iranian supreme leader announced a ban on the import of certain Covid-19 vaccines due to their production in the United States and the United Kingdom, which seriously threatens Iranians’ right to health and could undermine their access to vital medicine, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran is among the top 10 countries in the world for the number of Covid-19 deaths.

On January 8, 2021, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in a speech that “import of (Covid-19) vaccines made in the US and UK are prohibited.” In a tweet since hidden by Twitter, Khamenei claimed that vaccines made in the US or the UK are “completely untrustworthy. It's not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” Following his statement, about 200 Iranian parliament members also called for banning the import of Covid-19 vaccines made in the US, the UK, and France.

“Iranians have the right to access safe, effective, and affordable Covid-19 vaccines as soon as possible,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Decisions on what vaccine to secure for the public should be guided by public health and human rights principles rather than blatant political calculations.”

Iran has said that the country is participating in the COVAX Facility, which is an effort by the World Health Organization, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to help low- and middle-income countries get access to vaccines. Iran started the first phase of the human trial for a domestically produced vaccine in December 2020.

Previously, Abdolnaser Hemati, the head of Iran’s Central Bank, had said that banks in South Korea that hold Iranian frozen assets have refused to guarantee the transfer of funds to COVAX for fear that such funds will be seized by the United States. On December 28, Hemati said that the banks were able to secure US approval to transfer the money. According to Hemati, Iran would pay around $244 million for an initial import of 16.8 million doses of vaccines from COVAX.  

In 2019, Human Rights Watch research found that even though the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanction regime, broad US sanctions against Iranian banks, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials, have drastically constrained Iran’s ability to finance such humanitarian imports. Human Rights Watch has previously called on all stakeholders to ensure that people in Iran have swift, unencumbered, and equitable access to safe, effective, and affordable Covid-19 vaccines.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, to which Iran is a party, provides that everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” A country is required to take steps “individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources” to achieve the full realization of the right to health.

Under the same article countries should take effective steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The control of epidemics requires, among other steps, “the implementation or enhancement of immunization programmes and other strategies of infectious disease control.”

“Iranian authorities’ moves to politicize vaccine acquisition is irresponsible and dangerous,” Sepehri Far said. “Instead of using a global health crisis to advance the system’s ideology, Iranian authorities should make a commitment to prioritize Iranians’ lives and their right to health during this devastating pandemic.”

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