Iranians, desperate for Covid-19 vaccines, are crossing into Armenia to get them

A banner shows Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving a vaccine in Teheran, on July 3, 2021.
A banner shows Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving a vaccine in Teheran, on July 3, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - Thousands of Iranians frustrated with the government's chaotic vaccine roll-out and desperate for protection after enduring wave after wave of the coronavirus are flocking by air and land to neighbouring Armenia to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Iran is enduring a fifth wave of the pandemic, with Teheran and 143 cities declared high-risk "red" zones and the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus spreading quickly. Over the past two weeks, Iran's average daily caseload has risen by 62 per cent, to more than 16,000, according to a New York Times database.

Only about 2 per cent of Iran's 84 million people have been fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. With US- and British-made vaccines banned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's top leader, the country is waiting for shipments of vaccines made by China and Russia.

Across the border in Armenia, a country of 3 million, there are more vaccine doses than people willing to take them, largely because of widespread conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Officials there announced in May that they would provide free vaccines to foreigners without registration. Mobile clinics were set up in the streets to make them easily accessible to tourists and visitors. Iranians don't need a visa to travel to Armenia, and the drive from the border to the capital, Yerevan, is about seven hours.

Based on Iran's vaccine eligibility chart, Parvin Chamanpira, 53, and her husband calculated that it would be months before they qualified, so they travelled from Tehran to Yerevan last week and received their shots from an ambulance parked on the side of the road.

She said it took about five minutes, requiring only a blood pressure check and no paperwork. They will return in a few weeks for their second shots.

"This is not an ideal choice for Iranians to be forced to travel and spend a lot of money and be stressed out for getting a vaccine," Chamanpira said. "We would not do it if we didn't have to."

President Hassan Rouhani said this month that Iran would expand its vaccine distribution effort in the coming weeks by importing more foreign vaccines and producing domestic ones. So far it has received more than 2.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through Covax, the global vaccine-sharing programme.