DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader said on Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic was the country’s “number-one problem” and must urgently be curbed, and called for greater efforts to import and produce vaccines.
Daily coronavirus cases have hit 42,000 in a fifth wave of infections in Iran, which has been hit worse by the disease than any other Middle East country.
“The pandemic is Iran’s number-one problem today … The number of infected people and the fatalities are truly tragic. … It is an urgent matter that must be curbed,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised speech.
Iran’s health ministry on Wednesday reported 42,541 new cases in the past 24 hours, bringing total cases to 4,281,217. Deaths rose by 536 to 95,647, which the ministry blamed on the more infectious Delta variant.
Khamenei, who in January banned imports of U.S.- and British-made vaccines, said the government should “increase efforts to both import and to produce homegrown vaccines”.
Social media users, inside and outside Iran, have accused the clerical establishment of being slow to vaccinate people, with only about 4% of the 83 million population fully inoculated.
Iran has blamed U.S. sanctions for hampering purchases and deliveries of vaccines from other nations.
Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from U.S. sanctions reimposed on Tehran in 2018 after then President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers.
Trying to speed up vaccinations using imported doses as well as its COVIran Barakat shot, Iran is also participating in the COVAX scheme, run by the GAVI alliance and the World Health Organization, which aims to secure fair access for poorer countries.
Authorities have said daily deaths might reach 800 in coming weeks. Khamenei urged the nation to observe the ministry’s health protocols.
Iranian state media carried pictures of hospitals in several cities that have run out of beds for new patients. State TV said most of Iran’s 31 provinces have moved from the lower-risk orange level to red alert.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi)