Experts say questions about the potential use of pork products in vaccines may hamper COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical council aims to issue a ruling on whether a COVID-19 vaccine is halal or permissible under Islam before the country starts a mass inoculation campaign with a Chinese vaccine next week.
The world’s largest Muslim-majority country plans to launch the programme on January 13 after obtaining three million doses of the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac. President Joko Widodo will be the first to receive a dose to boost public confidence in the vaccines.
Gelatin derived from pigs is used as a stabiliser in some vaccines but the consumption of pork is strictly forbidden to Muslims, who make up some 90 percent of the Indonesian population.
Controversy over whether vaccines adhere to Islamic principles have hindered public health initiatives before, including in 2018, when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a religious decree declaring that a measles vaccine was forbidden under Islam.
“Our target is before first injections start, the fatwa [religious decree] has to come out then,” said Muti Arintawati, an official at MUI in charge of analysing food and drugs to assess whether they are halal.
Indonesia is struggling with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Southeast Asia and authorities hope the vaccine will help alleviate the health and economic crises ravaging the country.
Asked about the risk of public resistance, a health ministry official said the government would wait for MUI’s decision.
Ahmad Ishomuddin, an official at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest mainstream Muslim organisation, said emergency vaccines that were not halal could be used if there were no other options.
This opinion was supported by some Muslim residents in Depok, south of Jakarta.
“If indeed the vaccine contains non-halal ingredients and during the emergency period there are no other ingredients for the medicine, yes, it is permissible according to my religion,” said 19-year-old student Muhammad Farrel.
Indonesia’s food and drug agency (BPOM) needs to issue emergency use approval for vaccinations to start.
Indonesia has put in orders for vaccines manufactured by AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Novavax and will also tap COVAX – a World Health Organization-backed initiative to ensure the world’s poorer countries get fair access to shots.
AstraZeneca, Novavax and Pfizer have all said there are no pork products in their vaccines but Sinovac has not disclosed the ingredients of its product or said whether it contains gelatin.
In neighbouring Malaysia, which has so far committed to buy the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, religious authorities have declared COVID-19 vaccines permissible for Muslims and mandatory for those the government has identified to receive them.
Malaysia does not require vaccines to be certified halal, although authorities are planning to introduce a certification framework this year to allay concerns among some Muslims. It is also in talks to buy vaccines being developed by Russia and China.