Indonesia decides: is the Covid vaccine halal?

Use of pork gelatin as stabiliser in some jabs has caused controversy in Muslim community

Workers unload Sinovac vaccines from a truck under police escort.
Workers unload Sinovac vaccines from a truck under police escort
(Image credit: Juni Kriswanto/AFP via Getty Images)

In most countries across the globe, the development of effective Covid-19 vaccines has been cause for celebration. But in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, the vaccine announcements have met with a more mixed response.

Pork-derived gelatin is used as a stabiliser in some vaccines to prevent them from degrading during storage and transport. However, pork products are not permitted in Islam - triggering debates about the halal status of vaccines.

Indonesia is due to launch a mass inoculation campaign next week and has received three million doses of the Covid vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech. The government in Jakarta has also secured more than 329 million doses of other Covid vaccines, “most notably from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, and AstraZeneca”, Reuters reports.

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According to Al Jazeera, “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”.

The issue is further complicated by “a difference of opinion amongst Islamic scholars” as to whether a vaccine is still considered to be “religiously impure” if “you take something like pork gelatin and make it undergo a rigorous chemical transformation”, says Dr Salman Waqar, general secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association.

Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical council aims to issue a ruling on whether the Chinese jab is halal or permissible under Islam before their country’s vaccination campaign is due to begin next Wednesday.

The United Arab Emirates’ highest Islamic authority, the UAE Fatwa Council, last month “ruled that coronavirus vaccines are permissible for Muslims even if they contain pork gelatin”, as Istanbul-based newspaper Daily Sabah reported at the time.

Council chair Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah said that the vaccines would not be subject to Islam’s usual restrictions on pork because of the higher need to “protect the human body”.

But not everyone may be convinced by that argument.

As Al Jazeera notes, “controversy over whether vaccines adhere to Islamic principles have hindered public health initiatives before” in Indonesia.

In 2018, “the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a religious decree declaring that a measles vaccine was forbidden under Islam”, the Doha-based broadcaster reports.

That “vaccine fatwa” saw immunisation rates plummet, with millions of parents eschewing the jab, adds Science magazine.

Whether Indonesia’s religious leaders will now green-light Covid jabs remains to be seen, despite calls for urgent action to combat coronavirus outbreaks.

Indonesia has recorded almost 800,000 infections and more than 23,000 deaths to date, far outstripping the tallies in neighbouring Asia Pacific nations.

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