Concern among Muslims over halal status of COVID-19 vaccine

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. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 December 2020

Concern among Muslims over halal status of COVID-19 vaccine

Concern among Muslims over halal status of COVID-19 vaccine
  • Spokespeople for Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have said that pork products are not part of their COVID-19 vaccines
  • But limited supply and preexisting deals worth millions of dollars with other companies means that some countries with large Muslim populations will receive vaccines that have not yet been certified to be gelatin-free

JAKARTA: In October, Indonesian diplomats and Muslim clerics stepped off a plane in China. While the diplomats were there to finalize 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 — has raised concerns about the possibility of disrupted immunization campaigns.
Pork-derived gelatin has been widely used as a stabilizer 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 gelatin means the ingredient is 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 preexisting deals worth millions of dollars with other companies means that some countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, will receive vaccines that have not yet been certified to be gelatin-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 to medicine, he 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 said. “Is that still considered to be religiously impure for you to take?”
The majority consensus from past debates over pork gelatin 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.
“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,” said Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, a rabbinical organization in Israel.
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,” he said.
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 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,” said Rachel Howard, director of the health care market research group Research Partnership.
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.
“Our studies have found that some Muslims in Indonesia feel uncomfortable with accepting vaccinations containing these ingredients,” even when the Muslim authority issues guidelines saying they are permitted, she 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.”
“It could be disastrous,” if there is not strong community engagement from governments and health care workers, he said.
In Indonesia, the government has already said it will include the Muslim clerical body in the COVID-19 vaccine procurement and certification process.
“Public communication regarding the halal status, price, quality and distribution must be well-prepared,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in October.
While they were in China in the fall, the Indonesian clerics inspected China’s Sinovac Biotech facilities, and clinical trials involving some 1,620 volunteers are also underway in Indonesia for the company’s vaccine. The government has announced several COVID-19 vaccine procurement deals with the company totaling millions of doses.
Sinovac Biotech, as well as Chinese companies Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics — which all have COVID-19 vaccines in late-stage clinical trials and deals selling millions of doses around the world — did not respond to Associated Press requests for ingredient information.
In China, none of the COVID-19 vaccines has been granted final market approval, but more than 1 million health care workers and others who have been deemed at high risk of infection have received vaccines under emergency use permission. The companies have yet to disclose how effective the vaccines are or possible side effects.
Pakistan is late-stage clinical trials of the CanSino Biologics vaccine. Bangladesh previously had an agreement with Sinovac Biotech to conduct clinical trials in the country, but the trials have been delayed due to a funding dispute. Both countries have some of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
While health care workers on the ground in Indonesia are still largely engaged in efforts to contain the virus as numbers continue to surge, Waqar said government efforts to reassure Indonesians will be key to a successful immunization campaign as COVID-19 vaccines are approved for use.
But, he said, companies producing the vaccines must also be part of such community outreach.
“The more they are transparent, the more they are open and honest about their product, the more likely it is that there are communities that have confidence in the product and will be able to have informed discussions about what it is they want to do,” he said.
“Because, ultimately, it is the choice of individuals.”


UN pressures UK over resettling Syrian refugees

UN pressures UK over resettling Syrian refugees
Updated 28 min 51 sec ago

UN pressures UK over resettling Syrian refugees

UN pressures UK over resettling Syrian refugees
  • Refugee resettlement halted due to pandemic, with Britain restarting its scheme months after US, France, Spain
  • UN hopes UK can return to ‘burden-sharing’ levels of previous years

LONDON: The British government is under pressure from the UN to resettle a specific number of Syrian refugees after it scrapped a previously pledged target.

The Home Office had run the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which committed Britain to welcoming 20,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2020. The scheme ended in March this year.

But former Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced two years ago that a new “global resettlement scheme” would resettle some 5,000 refugees in the first year after the VPRS ended.

The Home Office has now scrapped this target, announcing that it will “maintain its long-term commitment to resettle refugees from around the globe” but without giving any indication of numbers or timings. 

The statement instead committed the department to keeping resettlement numbers under review “guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups as the UK recovers from Covid.”

The UN has criticized the Home Office for dropping its numbered commitment, arguing that the new plans will complicate the resettlement process.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told The Independent: “Having clarity on the numbers of refugees that are arriving via resettlement now and in future years is important for managing the programme — for UNHCR as well as local authorities and partners, who need clarity to be able to retain skilled staff. It also helps manage refugees’ expectations.

“We hope that the UK will continue to welcome at least as many refugees as it did in the years before the pandemic — around 5,000 a year — as an important commitment to burden-sharing for what is an acute global problem being made more urgent by Covid.”

Britain paused refugee resettlement after the government ramped up measures to tackle the pandemic in March 2020.

It did not resume its refugee work until November, months after other Western countries had returned to working on their plans.

Just 353 refugees were resettled in Britain in the year to March 2021, a 93 percent drop from the last reporting period.

Immigration Minister Chris Philp said: “While the pandemic has meant that resettlement activity has been disrupted over the last year, no one should be in any doubt of our commitment to build upon our proud history of resettling refugees in need of protection.

“The numbers we resettle will be kept under review and we will be guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups as we recover from Covid to provide places and support refugees to integrate into their communities and thrive.”


Americas-bound Iranian warships change course

Americas-bound Iranian warships change course
Updated 45 min 26 sec ago

Americas-bound Iranian warships change course

Americas-bound Iranian warships change course
  • Maritime trackers believe vessels now headed for Syria
  • US warned it would take ‘appropriate measures’ to prevent ships delivering arms to Venezuela

LONDON: Two Iranian warships, thought to be trafficking arms to Venezuela, have changed course and are now moving up Africa’s west coast.

The Biden administration had been pressuring Venezuela, Cuba and other countries in the region to turn the ships away, and a senior US official warned that it would take “appropriate measures” to prevent the delivery of arms to its hemisphere, which it views as a threat.

American officials believe that the diplomatic outreach can be credited for the ships’ change of course.

According to US news outlet Politico, a defense official believes that the ships are now headed for Syria via the Mediterranean, or for Russia.

The two ships are composed of a domestically manufactured destroyer, the Sahand, and the Makran, a former oil tanker fitted with a helipad and other military upgrades to make it a support vessel.

TankerTrackers.com tweeted: “We believe that the Iranian navy vessels MAKRAN and SAHAND are on their way to Syria in order to engage in navy exercises with Russia.”

Tehran has invested considerable amounts of money and manpower to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, including by providing personnel and funding, and by arming militias.

In the past, satellite imagery has shown fast attack boats on the Makran’s deck — vessels regularly used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to harass the commercial and military vessels of Iran’s adversaries, including US Navy and Coast Guard ships.

The White House and Pentagon have refused to comment publicly on the ships’ movements, but speaking before a committee last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers: “I’m absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood.”

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton referred to the ships as “pirate ships,” saying the US “has a legitimate right of self-defense against both of them.”

The journey that the ships have undertaken is the longest of any Iranian warship in history. US Sen. Mark Rubio tweeted: “This does not look like an oil or fuel cargo delivery. This has all the markings of delivery on an arms sale (such as fast attack boats) to Venezuela coupled with the opportunity to project a message of strength to the Biden administration.”  

Politico reported last year that Venezuela, also a US adversary, was considering purchasing long-range missiles from Tehran — a move considered a “red line” by Washington. That sale never came to pass.


Life sentence sought for ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero

Life sentence sought for ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero
Updated 18 June 2021

Life sentence sought for ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero

Life sentence sought for ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero
  • Former manager of Kigali’s Hotel des Mille Collines was made famous by the 2004 Hollywood film

KIGALI: Prosecutors in Rwanda on Thursday sought a life sentence for “Hotel Rwanda” hero and government critic Paul Rusesabagina, who is charged with terrorism in a trial denounced as political by his supporters.
“We have showed that every act by Rusesabagina was criminal in nature with the intent to commit terrorism,” said prosecutor Jean Pierre Habarurema, during a seven-hour hearing.
“We therefore request that he is given the maximum sentence provided for by the law, which is life imprisonment.”
The former manager of Kigali’s Hotel des Mille Collines was made famous by the 2004 Hollywood film that told how he saved more than 1,000 people who sheltered in his hotel during the genocide, a decade earlier, in which an estimated 800,000 died, most of them ethnic Tutsis.
Rusesabagina, a Hutu, subsequently became a prominent and outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame and has lived in exile in the US and Belgium since 1996.
Kagame’s government accuses him of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN) rebel group which is blamed for a series of gun, grenade and arson attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
Rusesabagina has denied any involvement in those attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing. He faces nine charges, including terrorism.
“As a leader, sponsor and supporter of MRCD/FLN, he encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts against Rwanda,” said Habarurema.
“Even if he did not actively take part in these attacks, he is considered as one who played a role by simply being a sponsor to these fighters.”


Classic COVID-19 symptoms changing: UK-led study

Classic COVID-19 symptoms changing: UK-led study
Updated 18 June 2021

Classic COVID-19 symptoms changing: UK-led study

Classic COVID-19 symptoms changing: UK-led study
  • Headache now most common symptom
  • Time to update list of classic symptoms: Expert

LONDON: A leading British scientist has said it is time to update the list of “classic” COVID-19 symptoms, after research found that a headache and sneezing are now among the most common signs of the disease.

Prof. Tim Spector is co-founder of the ZOE COVID symptom study, which draws on global contributors to report their symptoms once they test positive for the virus. It is the world’s largest study into the symptoms of COVID-19.

Spector said a headache now tops the list of most common symptoms, with 60 percent of people who test positive experiencing one.

A runny nose and sore throat are also “going up that list,” he added, and sneezing is now fourth, though it is often confused with hay fever.

Of the original “classic” symptoms, only a persistent cough remains in the top five, with fever and loss of smell dropping to ninth and seventh place respectively.

These developments, Spector said, mean governments must update their guidance. “We do need a much broader flexible approach to this as the virus changes and the populations change,” he added.


Philippines raises cap on health professionals going abroad

Philippines raises cap on health professionals going abroad
Updated 18 June 2021

Philippines raises cap on health professionals going abroad

Philippines raises cap on health professionals going abroad
  • The Philippines, one of the world’s biggest sources of nurses, reached its annual cap of 5,000 health worker deployments late last month

MANILA: The Philippines has increased the number of nurses and health care workers allowed to go overseas to 6,500 annually, a senior official said on Friday, amid high demand for its health professionals.
The Philippines, one of the world’s biggest sources of nurses, reached its annual cap of 5,000 health worker deployments late last month.
Those with contracts as of May 31 can take up overseas employment, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement. That means another 1,500 nurses and health care staff can work abroad, according to the labor ministry.
The labor minister on Wednesday said he would seek approval to allow 5,000 more health care workers to be deployed abroad, but a nurses’ group said there were many more than that hoping to find jobs with better pay abroad.
Health workers under government-to-government labor deals, such as that with the United Kingdom, are exempted from the new cap.
Roughly 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts in 2019, but the Philippines put a temporary halt on that in 2020, to shore-up its health sector as coronavirus hospitalizations rose sharply.
Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United, said the additional 1,500 was frustrating.
“It is very unrealistic compared with the huge need for nurses,” she said.