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.”


Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says
Updated 20 sec ago

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

PARIS: An off-duty police officer was stabbed and seriously wounded in Paris on Sunday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
Darmanin said in a Twitter post that an investigation had been opened and everything was being done to find the perpetrator. He did not give a motive for the stabbing.


Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
Updated 28 November 2021

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
  • Landmark judgment in April saw Iranian asylum seeker freed after steering small vessel

LONDON: A group of migrants who were imprisoned in the UK for steering dinghies across the English Channel are staging a bid to have their convictions overturned, The Independent newspaper has reported.

The group, comprised of 12 people, were labeled people smugglers and were prosecuted for aiding illegal migration.

However, in the wake of a landmark case won by an Iranian asylum seeker in April, the 12 men have decided to fight their convictions through the England and Wales Court of Appeal.

Lawmakers will host special court sessions next month to stage legal arguments over four of the 12 cases. The rulings handed down in the four cases will apply to the remainder of the cases.

Three of the cases involve migrants from Iran, while the fourth relates to a Kuwaiti citizen.

Iranian Samyar Bani, who was prosecuted in June 2019 and jailed for six years, will have his case considered first. His lawyer said: “This is a situation I have never heard of before. He is as much of a victim as others who have found their way to our shores.”

Aiding in an unlawful migration is typically a charge leveled against smugglers who receive substantial payments, including truck drivers.

A Court of Appeal judgment earlier in the year made available a defense for asylum seekers guiding small vessels who were found guilty of the charge.

It came after Fouad Kakaei, an asylum seeker, had his conviction overturned during a retrial.

Kakaei said that he had “taken turns” steering the dinghy with other migrants “because their lives were at risk.”

Following his case, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new rules meaning that asylum seekers would not be charged for steering boats if the “sole intention is to be intercepted and brought into port for asylum claims to be made.”


UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’
Updated 28 November 2021

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’
  • Inaction placing people at risk, say critics

LONDON: UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is facing new pressure from members of her own party over the failure of an Afghan resettlement program, which has not opened more than three months after being launched.

It comes as debate rages in Britain over the deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel earlier this week.

Several Conservative MPs privately demanded that Patel take action on the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, The Guardian reported.

They said that UK government inaction was placing Afghans at “deadly risk” and leaving vulnerable targets in the country at the mercy of the Taliban.

Damian Green, the former immigration minister, has called for a new approach to migration that is “realistic and compassionate.” 

In an opinion piece, he criticized the “blame game” between the UK and France over deaths at sea, and called on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron to work together to solve the crisis.

He said: “Now is not the time for displays of wounded amour propre in either language. Careless talk costs lives.”

Afghans are well represented in the body of migrants on the French coast who are attempting to travel to the UK. Government critics in the UK have argued that opening a legal route to entry would help avoid deaths at sea.

Rory Stewart, the former international development secretary, said the problems associated with the Afghan resettlement scheme were “surmountable,” but that the opportunity for helping vulnerable people was slipping away.

“We have a narrow window to get people out. At the moment, very strangely, the Taliban is prepared to permit people out. That won’t be true forever. It’s very likely at some point they’ll start taking more drastic measures.

“We have a deep moral obligation. These people, who are profoundly vulnerable, were told they were going to be helped. It’s just astonishing that they haven’t done so. This sort of program, actually, is the kind of thing that is the good alternative to these dangerous, unplanned routes. It moves people safely, but it’s also the way of ensuring that the most vulnerable are prioritized.”

An opinion poll found that just 18 percent of voters thought Patel was handling the migrant crisis effectively. In the opposite camp, 62 percent believed she was handling it “badly” or “very badly.”

Caroline Nokes, the former Conservative immigration minister, said: “This scheme needs to be up and running. Afghans here with family still in Afghanistan were given hope when the scheme was announced but are desperately worried that time is running out to get their family members to safety.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said: “We’re all supportive of stopping illegal immigration, but these other routes are the key to getting things properly done. This needs to be open and resolved, particularly because of Afghanistan and obligations to the people there. This week illustrates that.”

The Law Society has warned that lawyers and judges who worked to prosecute Taliban members over the past decade “are all targets while still in Afghanistan.”

Marina Brilman,the society’s international human rights adviser, said the scheme might not be ready by the end of the year.

She added: “Most judges, prosecutors and lawyers who helped to consolidate the rule of law in Afghanistan are Afghan nationals. They never made it on to the UK government’s evacuation list. When the last UK flight left Kabul airport, they were left stranded. Especially women.

“They send us desperate pleas for help and pass on handwritten death threats saying they and their families will be killed. They constantly move houses, and even provinces, to escape the violence. Door-to-door house searches by the Taliban continue, as do extrajudicial killings and public beatings. Of course, establishing this scheme is a huge undertaking. 

“But it should not have to take three and a half months to even open it for applications. It raises the question how much of a priority this is for the UK government.”

However, a government spokesperson defended the scheme’s rollout.

“We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping more than 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan, who we are continuing to support.

“The ACRS is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history and will give up to 20,000 further people at risk a new life in the UK. We continue to work at pace to open the scheme amid a complex and changing picture, working across government and with partners such as the UNHCR to design the scheme.”


Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
Updated 28 November 2021

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
  • Protests break out in London demanding safer route for migrants following deaths of 27 at sea
  • UK and France war of words escalates over plans to stop flow of migrant dinghies to England

LONDON: The father of an Iraqi Kurdish woman who drowned attempting to cross the English Channel has called for the “mafia” people traffickers responsible to be stopped, amid protests in London demanding safer passage for people attempting to reach the UK.

Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24, was among 27 people who died on Wednesday. She had been trying to reach her fiance who was already in the UK.

Speaking from Soran in Iraqi Kurdistan, Maryam’s father, Nuri Mohammed Mohammed Amin, called the people smugglers “butchers,” saying the disaster was a tragedy “not only for me but for the whole of Kurdistan and the world.”

He added: “I ask the French government to tighten their borders and stop those butchers. They are not smugglers, they are mafias. This is my only request.

“Those boats that they are using are not made for that purpose. They treat those poor people like animals. Where were her human rights?

“It is the role of the French government to have a strict procedure to stop those butchers to avoid further tragedies, and I hope our people stop even thinking about migrating using similar ways,” he said.

Maryam’s journey to join her fiance, which saw her travel to France via Turkey, Italy and Germany, was meant to be a surprise. Her cousin, Krmanj Ezzat Dargali, told UK radio station LBC that she had been “glowing with hope” to start a new life in the UK.

About 150 people gathered outside Downing Street in London on Saturday to protest the tragedy, which it is thought could have been caused when the dinghy being used — meant to carry 10 people at most — collided with another vessel, possibly a container ship.

Several protesters held banners calling for “safe passage now” for migrants, with others stating “migrants and refugees welcome here,” adding that politicians had blood on their hands.

The protest was in part a response to the proposed nationalities and borders bill, which will include new powers to deport people with no right to remain in the UK.

Lara Bishop, a volunteer for the asylum-seeker support charity Care4Calais said: “No one should have to die on our border. We are a first-world nation.

“We are the sixth biggest economy in the world but we only take 1 percent of refugees and we make it so difficult for people to cross and it’s not OK for people to be dying in the Channel.

“I think the British and the French governments need to remember humanity. At the moment they’re using them as political pawns — throwing them between themselves — but these are humans.”

So far about 25,000 people are thought to have crossed the English Channel via dinghies from Northern France this year, which has led to tensions between London and Paris.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in a letter that more migrants would die unless France returned to talks over a plan to reduce the number of boats attempting the crossing, which led to an angry response from French President Emmanuel Macron after the letter was posted on social media platform Twitter.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was subsequently disinvited from talks with her EU counterparts this weekend aimed at finding a joint solution.


13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
Updated 28 November 2021

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
  • The 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation
  • The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The Dutch public health authority confirmed Sunday that 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation while sequencing was carried out to establish if they had the new variant.
The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples.
Most of the 61 people who tested positive were put into isolation at a hotel near the airport, while a small number were allowed to sit out their quarantine at home under strict conditions.
Health authorities appealed to all travelers who returned from southern Africa in the past week to get tested, and set up a test center at Schiphol Airport for Dutch citizens returning from the region. The tests are voluntary, and travelers can wait for the results in isolation at home.