In October, Indonesian diplomats and Muslim clerics stepped off a plan in China. While the diplomats were there to finalise deals to ensure millions of doses reached Indonesian citizens, the clerics had a much different concern: Whether the COVID-19 vaccine was permissible for use under Islamic law.
As companies race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and countries scramble to secure doses, questions about the use of pork products banned by some religious groups have raised concerns about the possibility of disrupted immunisation campaigns.
Pork-derived gelatine has been widely used as stabilizers to ensure vaccines remain safe and effective during storage and transport. Some companies have worked for years to develop pork-free vaccines: Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has produced a pork-free meningitis vaccine, while Saudi and Malaysia based AJ Pharma is currently working on one of their own.
But demand, existing supply chains, cost, and the shorter shelf life; of vaccines not containing porcine gelatine means the ingredients are likely to continue; to be used in a majority of vaccines for years, said Dr. Salman Waqar, general secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association.
Spokespeople for Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have said that pork products; are not part of their COVID-19 vaccines. But limited supply and pre-existing deals worth millions of dollars with other companies mean; that some countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, will receive vaccines that have not yet been certified to be gelatine-free.
This presents a dilemma for religious communities, including Orthodox Jews and Muslims, where the consumption of pork products; is deemed religiously unclean, and how the ban is applied is to medicine.
Waqar said, “There’s a difference of opinion amongst Islamic scholars; as to whether you take something like pork gelatine and make it undergo a rigorous chemical transformation. Is that still considered to be religiously impure for you to take?”
The majority consensus from past debates over pork gelatine use in vaccines is that it is permissible under Islamic law, as “greater harm” would occur if the vaccines weren’t used, said Dr. Harunor Rashid, an associate professor at the University of Sydney. There’s a similar assessment by a broad consensus of religious leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community as well.
Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, a rabbinical organisation; in Israel said, “According to the Jewish law, the prohibition on eating pork; or using pork is only forbidden when it’s a natural way of eating it. If it’s injected into the body, not eaten through; the mouth, then there is no prohibition and no problem, especially when we are concerned about sicknesses.”
Yet, there have been dissenting opinions on the issue, some with serious health consequences for Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, some 225 million.
In 2018, the Indonesian Ulema Council, the Muslim clerical body that; issues certifications that a product is halal, or permissible and rubella vaccines were “haram”, or unlawful, because of the gelatine. Religious and community leaders; began to urge parents to not allow their children to be vaccinated.
A decree was later issued by the Muslim clerical body saying it was permissible; to receive the vaccine, but cultural taboos still led to continued low vaccination rates, Howard said.
Governments have taken steps to address the issue. In Malaysia, where the halal status of vaccines has been identified as the biggest issue; among Muslim parents, stricter laws have been enacted so that parents must vaccinate their children or face fines and jail time. In Pakistan where there has been; waning vaccine confidence for religious and political reasons, parents have been jailed for refusing to vaccinate their children against polio.
But with rising vaccine hesitancy and misinformation spreading; around the globe, including in religious communities, Rashid said community engagement is “absolutely necessary”.
In Indonesia, the government has already said it will include the Muslim clerical body in the COVID-19 vaccine procurement and certification process.