Muslim leaders worried about halal status of COVID-19 vaccine

Indonesia diplomats and Muslim clerics visited in China in October to finalize a deal to for millions of doses of a new COVID-19 vaccine for its citizens once one became available.

But while the diplomats wanted to ensure Indonesian citizens are protected, the clerics had a different objective: To determine if the vaccine would be permitted for use under Islamic law, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

“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 — has raised concerns about the possibility of disrupted immunization campaigns,” the AP reported.

Gelatin derived from pork is a common ingredient in vaccines, acting as a stabilizer to make sure they stay safe and remain effective while they are transported and stored. For years, however, some pharmaceutical companies have worked to develop pork gelatin-free vaccines.

Novartis, a Swiss firm, has already produced a pork-free vaccine for meningitis. And AJ Pharma, based in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, is also working on a version as well, the AP reported.

However, because of demand, current supply chains, shorter shelf lives for non-pork-gelatin vaccines and overall cost all make it more likely that pharmaceutical companies will continue to use the ingredient in most vaccines for years to come, Dr. Salman Waqar, general secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association, told the AP.

Still, spokespersons for Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZenica have all said their companies have not used pork products in their COVID-19 vaccines. That said, because of limited supplies — at least initially — and deals made as the vaccines were being developed that are worth millions of dollars with other firms “means that some countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, will receive vaccines that have not yet been certified to be gelatin-free,” the AP reported.

That makes it problematic for religious communities including Muslims and Orthodox Jews where consumption of products containing pork is considered religiously unclean, Waqar said.

“There’s a difference of opinion amongst Islamic scholars as to whether you take something like pork gelatin and make it undergo a rigorous chemical transformation,” Waqar told the newswire. “Is that still considered to be religiously impure for you to take?”

Dr. Harunor Rashid, an associate professor at the University of Sidney, said that most agree from debates past regarding the use of pork gelatin in vaccines that it’s okay to do under Islamic law because “greater harm” would occur if the vaccines were not administered.

That’s also the view among a majority of Orthodox Jewish leaders, the AP noted.

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“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,” Rabbi David Stav, chair of Tzohar, a rabbinical group in Israel, told AP.

If “it’s injected into the body, not (eaten) through the mouth,” there is “no prohibition and no problem, especially when we are concerned about sicknesses,” he added.

But there are dissenting opinions to those views, and they could have potentially serious health consequences for Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population — roughly 225 million — in the world.

The AP notes:

In 2018, the Indonesian Ulema Council, the Muslim clerical body that issues certifications that a product is halal, or permissible under Islamic law, decreed that the measles and rubella vaccines were “haram,” or unlawful, because of the gelatin. Religious and community leaders began to urge parents to not allow their children to be vaccinated.

“Measles cases subsequently spiked, giving Indonesia the third-highest rate of measles in the world,” Rachel Howard, director of Research Partnership, a market research group, told the AP.

Later the Muslim clerical body issued a decree stating it was okay to receive the vaccine, but Howard said cultural issues with the gelatin led to lower vaccination rates.

That said, some governments have moved to bypass the halal issue. In Malaysia, the government has implemented stricter laws requiring parents to vaccinate their children or face fines and jail. Also, parents have been jailed in Pakistan for refusing to vaccinate their children against the poliovirus, the AP reported.

Jon Dougherty

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