Iran’s health minister claimed on Wednesday that Iranian scientists were testing several domestically produced coronavirus vaccines on humans.
Saeed Namaki said two Iranian companies “made some progress in developing three to four vaccines and these vaccines have passed tests on animals and have entered the human trial phase,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Namaki did not elaborate further and it was not clear whether the tests were Phase 2 trials on a small number of people, or Phase 3 trials on hundreds or thousands of participants.
He also said Iran has made arrangements to purchase a potential vaccine from other countries that could develop it more quickly, the report said.
Last month, Namaki said that “at least five groups of highly skilled Iranian groups” were working on a vaccine, Fars reported.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a Tuesday meeting that “good steps” had been taken to produce vaccines and other drugs to combat the virus, but did not mention human trials, in a report on the meeting by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.
Iran has seen the Middle East’s most severe coronavirus outbreak, and has been accused, including by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, of covering up the true toll of the disease to bolster the regime’s image.
A report by the BBC Persian Service earlier this month said that the number of deaths was nearly triple the official tally, with almost 42,000 fatalities and over 450,000 infections by July 20.
Last month Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed that 25 million Iranians may have been infected with the coronavirus, a figure drastically higher than the country’s official tally, and higher even than the current confirmed global count. Iran’s population is around 80 million.
The shock statement was compounded by Rouhani’s suggestion his government was now hoping to overcome the Middle East’s worst outbreak via herd immunity.
Russia calls vaccine concerns ‘absolutely groundless’
Iran’s vaccine announcement followed claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that his country had completed development of a vaccine, and that he had even seen it administered to his daughter.
The announcement was met with widespread skepticism over safety concerns by international experts, who fear Russia is advancing the vaccine too quickly for political purposes.
The vaccine was granted regulatory approval after less than two months of human tests.
Russian officials said that large-scale production of the vaccine will start in September, and mass vaccination may begin as early as October. Moscow’s Health Ministry said that the vaccine was expected to provide immunity from the coronavirus for up to two years.
Russia has been pushing hard to quickly develop a coronavirus vaccine and said earlier this month it hoped to launch mass production within weeks and turn out “several million” doses per month by next year. It is the first country to register a coronavirus vaccine.
Russia said on Wednesday it would begin administering the vaccine to medical personnel who volunteer for a final trial within two weeks, the Reuters news agency reported.
Also Wednesday, Russia dismissed growing international fears over the vaccine.
“It seems our foreign colleagues are sensing the specific competitive advantages of the Russian drug and are trying to express opinions that… are absolutely groundless,” Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said.
Scientists from the US, France, Germany and Spain all expressed concern over the shot’s speedy approval, the BBC reported.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, told National Geographic on Tuesday, “I hope that the Russians have actually definitively proven that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
“I seriously doubt that they’ve done that,” Fauci said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, “It can be dangerous to start vaccinating millions… of people too early because it could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong.”
When the pandemic struck Russia, Putin ordered state officials to shorten the time of clinical trials for potential coronavirus vaccines.
Becoming the first country in the world to develop a vaccine was a matter of national prestige for the Kremlin as it tries to assert the image of Russia as a global power. State television stations and other media have praised scientists working on it and presented the work as the envy of other nations.
Many scientists questioned the decision to register the vaccine before Phase 3 trials that normally last for months and involve thousands of people. Some have suggested researchers might be cutting corners and coming under pressure from authorities to deliver.
The World Health Organization said any WHO stamp of approval on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate would require a rigorous safety data review.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Tuesday that Israel was interested in holding discussions with Russia about its claims on its vaccine.
Edelstein told reporters: “We have already arranged discussions about the research center in Russia and the development of a vaccine. If we are convinced that it is a genuine product then we will try to enter into negotiations.”
The pandemic has seen an unprecedented mobilization of funding and research to rush through a vaccine that can protect billions of people worldwide.
Experts have warned that vaccines that are not properly tested can cause harm in many ways — from a negative impact on health to creating a false sense of security or undermining trust in vaccinations.