Shops remain closed due to coronavirus restrictions in Tehran on December 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Muhammet Kursun/Anadolu Agency

Iran said its novel coronavirus infections surpassed one million cases on Thursday, as authorities consider easing restrictions in many parts of the Middle East’s hardest-hit country.

The Islamic republic has recorded 1,003,494 Covid-19 infections since announcing its first cases in February, ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said on state television.

The novel coronavirus has killed 49,348 people in Iran over the same period of time, according to official figures. 

But by the admission of some officials, including Health Minister Saeed Namaki, these figures are much lower than the reality.

In the past 24 hours the virus caused 358 new deaths in the country with a population of more than 80 million, and 13,922 new cases of infection, Lari said.

The number of fatalities, however, appears to have slightly eased in past days after soaring to a daily average of more than 400 for much of November.

Covid-19 first surfaced in Iran on February 19, when authorities said it claimed the lives of two elderly people in Qom, a Shiite holy city south of the capital.

They were the first confirmed deaths from the disease in the Middle East.

In response, the authorities have taken a series of measures aimed at halting the spread of the virus.

But faced with the dual challenge of US sanctions and the pandemic, they have never imposed full lockdowns for fear they would cause further damage to Iran’s battered economy.

US President Donald Trump has reimposed wave after wave of sanctions on the Islamic republic since 2018, when he unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

Despite this, non-essential businesses were closed for two weeks in areas at the highest risk on November 21, reinforcing restrictions President Hassan Rouhani said were needed to curb a “third wave” of the outbreak.

The measures apply to the vast majority of cities across Iran, including Tehran and the country’s 30 other provincial capitals.

Like most countries affected by the pandemic, Iran – which began developing its own vaccine in the spring – is awaiting the availability of any vaccine against the virus.

Namaki announced on Wednesday that an Iranian company had “obtained a license to test a vaccine on humans.”

Minou Mohraz, a medical epidemiologist with the National Coronavirus Control Committee, announced this week that an animal testing phase has been completed.

They have yet to specify when testing will be carried out on humans.

But Namaki said that if the step is successful, “we will be one of the major producers (of Covid vaccines) in the region by early next spring.”

Iran had “pre-purchased” about 16.8 million doses of vaccine “via Covax” – the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mechanism for equitable access to vaccines, he was quoted as saying on the ministry’s website, without specifying which one.