JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – In October, Indonesian diplomats and Muslim clerics got off a plane in China. Although the diplomats were there to close deals that would secure millions of doses for Indonesian citizens, the religious had a very different concern: determining whether the COVID-19 vaccine could be authorized under Islamic law.
As various companies scrambled to develop vaccines and countries struggled to secure dosages, doubts about the use of pork products, banned by some religious groups, have raised fears of complications in immunization campaigns.
It is common to use gelatin derived from pigs as a stabilizer to ensure that vaccines remain safe and effective during storage and transport. Some companies have been working to develop pig-free vaccines for years: Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has produced a meningitis vaccine without pig derivatives, while AJ Pharma, based in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, is working on its own version.
But the demand, existing supply chains, cost, and faster shelf life of swine-free vaccines mean that gelatin-free vaccine will likely continue to be used for years in most vaccines, said Dr. Salman Waqar, secretary of the Medical Association. British Muslim.
Spokespersons for Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have noted that their COVID-19 vaccines do not contain pork products. But the limited supply and million-dollar pre-agreements with other companies mean countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, will receive vaccines that have not been certified free of that gelatin.
That poses a dilemma for religious communities such as Orthodox Jews and Muslims, who view the consumption of pork products as impious, about how the standard applies to medicine.
“There are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars when you take something like porcine gelatin and go through a major chemical transformation,” Waqar said. “Is it still considered unclean to consume that?”
The majority consensus in previous debates on the use of porcine gelatin in vaccines is that it is permissible under Islamic law, as there would be “greater harm” if the vaccines are not used, said Dr. Harunor Rashid, associate professor at the University of Sydney.
Among religious leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community there seems to be a similar consensus.
“According to Jewish law, the prohibition of eating pork or using pork is only a prohibition when it is a natural way to eat it,” said Rabbi David Stav, president of the Israeli rabbinical organization Tzohar.
If it is “injected into the body, not (eaten) by mouth,” then “there is no prohibition and there is no problem, especially when we are concerned about the disease,” he said.
However, there have been dissenting views, some with serious health consequences for Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, some 225 million people.
The Indonesian Ulema Council, the clerical body that certifies whether a product is halal, or allowed by Islamic law, decreed in 2018 that measles and rubella vaccines were “haram,” or unholy, because of the jelly. Religious and civil leaders began to urge people to prevent their children from being vaccinated.
“As a result, measles cases skyrocketed, giving Indonesia the third highest measles rate in the world,” said Rachel Howard, director of the market research group for the healthcare Research Partnership.
Later, the religious body issued a decree saying it was permissible to receive the vaccine, but the cultural taboo kept the vaccination rate low, Howard said.
Governments have taken steps to address the issue. In Malaysia, where the halal status of vaccines has been identified as the main problem among Muslim parents, stricter laws have been imposed for parents to vaccinate their children or face fines and prison sentences. In Pakistan, where reliance on vaccines has declined for political and religious reasons, parents have been jailed for refusing to vaccinate their children against polio.
Involving communities in immunization programs is “absolutely necessary” given the rise in concerns and misinformation about vaccines around the world, Rashid said.
When they traveled to China in the fall, Indonesian clerics inspected the facilities of the Chinese firm Sinovach Biotech. Clinical trials for that firm’s vaccine are also underway with some 1,620 volunteers in Indonesia. The government has announced several agreements with the company to obtain millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sinovac Biotech and Chinese firms Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics, which have COVID-19 vaccines in the late stages of clinical trials and have signed contracts for millions of doses worldwide, did not respond to questions from the Associated Press about ingredients in your drugs.
Waqar noted that the Indonesian government’s efforts to reassure the population will be key to the success of the immunization campaign.
However, he noted, the companies that produce the vaccines are also part of the outreach to the population.
“The more transparent they are, the more open and honest they are about their product, the more likely there are communities that have confidence in the product and will be able to have informed conversations about what they want to do,” he said.
“Because, ultimately, it is the decision of individuals,” he concluded.
Associated Press journalists Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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