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.”


Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID

Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID
Updated 05 August 2021

Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID

Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID
  • The Mediterranean country is also battling a wave of wildfires during a protracted heatwave
  • Restrictions will come into effect from Friday and run until Aug. 13

ATHENS: Greece imposed a night time curfew and banned music on two popular tourist islands on Thursday to contain the spread of COVID-19, its civil protection deputy minister said.
The Mediterranean country, which is trying to rebuild a tourist sector hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, is also battling a wave of wildfires during a protracted heatwave.
Restrictions will come into effect from Friday and run until Aug. 13 after a recommendation by the committee of infectious disease experts advising the Greek government.
The areas affected are the island of Zakynthos in western Greece, where the epidemiological load worsened by 69% from a week earlier, and the city of Chania in Crete where it rose 54%.
The restrictions include a night time curfew and a complete 24-hour ban on music at all entertainment venues.
"We call on the residents and visitors in these areas to fully comply with the measures to limit the spread of the virus," the Civil Protection agency said.
Greece reported 2,856 COVID-19 infections on Wednesday and 16 related deaths, bringing the total since the first case was detected in February 2020 to 503,885 and 13,013 respectively.
Last month, Greece's south Aegean islands were marked dark red on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's COVID-19 map after a rise in infections, meaning all but essential travel was discouraged.


Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border
Updated 05 August 2021

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

DUSHANBE: Russia on Thursday kicked off military drills near the border with Afghanistan, as Kabul struggles to peg back a Taliban offensive after the withdrawal of US-led troops.
Moscow has positioned itself as bulwark against potential spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia, where three former Soviet republics share borders with the conflict-wracked country.
The joint exercises at the Kharb-Maidon training ground just 20 kilometers from the Tajik border with Afghanistan involve 2,500 troops from Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Russia’s Central Military District said in a statement.
The drills that will continue until August 10 are being held in parallel to joint Russian-Uzbek maneuvers featuring 1,500 troops in Uzbekistan’s Termez near the border with Afghanistan.
Russia maintains military bases in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s two poorest countries.


India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash
Updated 05 August 2021

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash
  • Six police officers dead and dozens injured in July 26 border clash
  • The two states have been wrangling over their border for decades

NEW DELHI: India will deploy a “neutral force” at the frontier of two states in its north-east, after their long-running border dispute escalated into a deadly showdown, officials said Thursday.

The July 26 clash on the border between Assam and Mizoram left six police officers dead and dozens injured, in a major embarrassment to the central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a joint statement released Thursday, the governments of both states said a “neutral force” would be deployed by the Indian government in disputed areas.

“For this purpose, both the states shall not send their respective forest and police forces for patrolling, domination, enforcement or for fresh deployment to any of the areas where confrontation and conflict has taken place,” the statement read.

Mizoram was part of Assam until 1972 and became a state in its own right in 1987.

The two states have been wrangling over their border for decades, but such deadly escalations are rare.

The government of Mizoram Thursday also expressed regret — for the first time since the clashes — over the death of the six police from Assam.

Last week, the chief ministers of both states tweeted that they would seek an amicable approach to the dispute.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma belongs to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party while Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga heads the Mizo National Front — an ally of the ruling BJP alliance.

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UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families
Updated 05 August 2021

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families
  • Regular reprisals against Afghan interpreters and their families have escalated as the Taliban have seized vast swathes of the countryside

LONDON: The UK government said on Wednesday it aimed to resettle hundreds more Afghan translators and their families, after criticism from former military top brass it was not doing enough.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel said they were committed to relocating the families of 500 staff who supported British troops in Afghanistan “as soon as possible” — some 2,500 individuals in total.

The pledge came after published criticism from senior defense figures, urging a review of the relocation scheme in the face of escalating violence in Afghanistan and threats to former local staff.

“There has been considerable misreporting of the scheme in the media, feeding the impression the Government is not supporting our former and current Afghan staff,” Wallace and Patel wrote.

“This could not be further from the truth and since the US announced its withdrawal we have been at the forefront of nations relocating people,” they added.

In response to pressure following the announcement of a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the UK accelerated its relocation scheme for Afghan local staff in May.

Since the expansion was announced, 1,400 Afghan staff and their families had been relocated, equalling the total number resettled in Britain since 2014.

Six former heads of the UK armed forces and other senior military figures voiced concern in a letter to The Times last week that Afghan staff had been rejected for relocation because of security concerns.

Often these individuals were deemed ineligible because they were dismissed from service.

The ministers asserted they needed to ensure a “balance between generosity and security” and would now offer relocation to 264 members of Afghan staff who were dismissed for a “relatively minor administrative offense.”

Of these, they said, 121 individuals in that category have already been offered relocation.

The Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s deadly bomb and gun attack on the capital, Kabul, amid a wider assault by the Islamist group on a string of provincial capitals.

Regular reprisals against Afghan interpreters and their families have escalated as the Taliban have seized vast swathes of the countryside in the weeks following the withdrawal announcement.

As humanitarian displacement from the conflict increases, the UK also said it would make further changes to its rules to allow former Afghan staff and their families to make applications for relocation outside Afghanistan.


Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics
Updated 05 August 2021

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics
  • Nationwide, Japan reported more than 14,000 cases for a total of 970,000
  • Some experts have called for a current state of emergency in Tokyo and five other areas to be expanded nationwide
TOKYO: Tokyo reported 5,042 new daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, hitting a record since the pandemic began as the infections surge in the Japanese capital hosting the Olympics.
The additional cases brought the total for Tokyo to 236,138. Nationwide, Japan reported more than 14,000 cases on Wednesday for a total of 970,000.
Tokyo has been under a state of emergency since mid-July, and four other areas have since been added and extended until Aug. 31. But the measures, basically a ban on alcohol in restaurants and bars and their shorter hours, are increasingly ignored by the public, which has become tired of restrictions.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has denied that the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics have caused a rise in infections.
Alarmed by the pace of the spread, some experts have called for a current state of emergency in Tokyo and five other areas to be expanded nationwide.
Instead, Suga on Thursday announced a milder version of the emergency measures in eight prefectures, including Fukushima in the east and Kumamoto in the south, expanding the areas to 13 prefectures.
Experts at a Tokyo metropolitan government panel cautioned that infections propelled by the more contagious delta variant have become “explosive” and could exceed 10,000 cases a day in two weeks.