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Fears grow in Iran as pandemic worsens

Iran wrestles with record infection and mortality rates and officials worry that a new variant could come in on the heels of the Delta variant, which has been ravaging the country.
Motorcyclists with face masks in Tehran

Iran is continuing to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and officials fear it is only a matter of time before another powerful variant — possibly even a home-grown one — will follow the Delta variant and further devastate the country.

"Given the ongoing situation, and the vast spread of the virus, it is not too much to assert that we are about to face a new indigenous variant," said Alijan Tabraee, the head of the Iranian Society of Virologists. "We have created the hotbed for the virus to mutate," he added, noting that it could be only a matter of weeks before such a variant sweeps nationwide.

The pandemic has shown its ugliest side in Iran during the past month, with cataclysmic death and infection rates caused in large part by the fast-spreading Delta variant. Iranians continue to line up at cemeteries to bury their loved ones as others are pushed away from hospitals, which have reached capacity, most noticeably in the capital, Tehran.   

Even as the government says it is ramping up its controversial vaccination rollout, the country's senior epidemiologists do not see any flattened curve in the weeks to come. They are already warning about a "sixth wave" of a more aggressive pandemic around October.

Officials worry about the Lambda variant of the virus, which was initially detected in Peru and has now become the dominant strain in several Latin American nations. While Tehran says no such cases have been detected so far, it is worried that the variant will have made its way to Iran and spread by the fall. Health experts have sounded the alarm to officials to make preparations in the face of the looming threat from Lambda or some other potent variant. In his first meeting with members of his Cabinet on Aug. 26, new President Ebrahim Raisi renewed his pledge to battle the pandemic as a top priority, although he has yet to unveil a comprehensive road map.

Frontline workers in Iran's health system are physically and emotionally drained and are also facing a crawling spread of "black fungus," a rare and often fatal chronic infection seen in some coronavirus patients. At least six Iranian provinces have reported cases. Imam Khomeini Hospital, a leading COVID-19 medical center in the capital, has confirmed at least 10 cases.

Reported daily coronavirus deaths have been around 700 the last week, with the total death toll close to 105,000 Aug. 26.

However, from the very outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, Iran has faced accusations that it was underreporting the death toll for political and security reasons, among other considerations. Some health authorities have on occasion said the actual death totals are well above the officially announced numbers.

Only this week, the daily Javan, affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, quoted a top epidemiologist as saying that around 700,000 Iranians might have died of COVID-19, a figure seven times larger than the official tally. Iran International reported that many experts estimate the actual death toll to be 2.5 to 3 times higher; it was speculated that the Javan article was a way for the new administration to put the onus on the old one. 

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