Halal-certified Covid-19 vaccines gaining traction – KBR

In Korea, a country well-known for its wide variety of pork dishes ranging from the famous samgyeopsal, bossam and jeyuk bokkeum, Muslims and vegans living in Korea are used to carefully reading the labels of anything they consume as many products often contain animal products. However, when it comes to vaccines, this is not possible as you do not have the time to sit with the vial and ponder the ingredients. 
It might also slip your mind as it’s easy to overlook this fact amid a lifesaving vaccine against the persisting and mutating Covid-19 virus. 
“I never thought what the vaccine actually contains but I made sure to get my primary shots,” said a 27-year-old male Muslim from Somalia, living in Minnesota, the U.S.
When this topic was first broached at the start of the pandemic, it was a bit difficult to fully accommodate these concerns because the more pressing issue at the time was ensuring sufficient vaccine supplies were provided. However, with 11 different approved Covid-19 vaccines worldwide and an additional 199 and 175 vaccine candidates in preclinical and clinical trials respectively according to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO), this discussion has again resurfaced.
At the recently concluded vaccine cooperation forum in Seoul for the Indo-Pacific region, halal vaccines were mentioned by Dr. Prima Tumiur of Indonesia’s Ministry of Health as she shared her country’s Covid-19 experience. You might be surprised to hear this word in vaccines, but it calls into question the inclusivity of vaccines.
Dr. Anh Wartel, Deputy Director of the International Vaccines Institute (IVI) who also attended the vaccine forum in Seoul, said, “A study in Malaysia has shown that 78.5 percent strongly agreed that they will not take the vaccine unless the vaccine is certified halal.”
Wartel went on to say that in Indonesia during the Covid-19 vaccination program, there were some vaccines declared halal and safe. Therefore, vaccine acceptance can be influenced by halal vaccine certification, she noted.
Which Covid-19 vaccines are halal-certified?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also announced on July 23, 2021, on their social media accounts that Covid-19 vaccines – available vaccines at the time included Moderna, Pfizer, Jansen, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm — are halal as they do not contain any animal products. The notice further explained the Medical Fiqh Symposium ruled vaccines are permissible according to Sharia law– a religious law that all Muslims should adhere to.
Additionally, the most widely distributed Covid-19 vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson all showed that no animal products are used according to the ingredients listed on the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) website. Official spokespersons for AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna also confirmed this.
However, halal certification goes further than confirming no animal products in the final ingredients listing as it can be used earlier on in the manufacturing process. Thus, halal certification is carried out by three parties including the BPJPH, the halal product assurance agency, LPPOM MUI as a Halal Inspection Body, and the MUI, Indonesia’s Ulema Council. Accordingly, a vaccine will be issued a halal certificate by the BPJPH after submitting the required documents, undergoing an audit and halal inspection, fulfilling the Halal Assurance System (HAS) criteria assessment and approval by the Fatwa Commission before issuance of the halal certificate.
Sinovac was the first Covid-19 vaccine to become halal-certified in April this year by the BPJH. This followed the Indonesian Muslim Consumer Foundation (YKMI) lawsuit in Indonesia’s Supreme Court to challenge the government’s lack of a halal-based booster vaccine option for citizens on April 14.
Subsequently, the listed halal-certified vaccines in Indonesia are Sinovac, Zifivax and the domestic Merah Putih Vaccine, also called Inavec. Indonesia’s other domestically developed vaccine, Indovac, most recently joined this listing, obtaining domestic approval and halal certification in October.
However, AstraZeneca’s vaccine was declared “haram,” meaning not halal, in Indonesia due to tests performed by the MUI which found pork-derived trypsin. Similarly, the MUI has not been able to confirm the halal status of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine, citing a lack of data on the used ingredients as the reason. Still, Indonesia’s government and religious organizations permit the use of these vaccines temporarily acknowledging the need for them as they benefit public health interests, outweighing the cons.
Why some animal products can't easily be removed?
However, the issue was first raised as traditionally some vaccines contain pork gelatine as a stabilizer to keep the vaccine safe and effective during storage. Pork gelatine is included in the nasal flu vaccine. Animal enzymes are also used during the manufacture of vaccines to activate the vaccine virus but were subsequently removed from the final vaccine in washing, purification, and dilution processes. Also, vaccine viruses are often grown in eggs like the influenza vaccine, or in cell lines derived from mammals.
This culture media provides nutritious elements and growth factors that may have been obtained from materials of animal origin, such as serum, milk and milk derivatives, gelatine, and meat extract.
Although animal products are used in the development of most vaccines, and some contain small percentages of animal products, it is highly regulated and minimized only to cases when needed for ensuring vaccine safety and effectiveness.
However, they cannot simply be removed from the product because this will also affect the clinical trial studies which will have to be repeated.
Halal vaccines for vaccine inclusivity?
In Korea, the Muslim community is not that large, only accounting for 0.2 percent of the population and thus, this topic was not raised as a very important issue before. However, its Asian neighbors including Indonesia and Malaysia debated this topic with the Indonesian Muslim Consumer Foundation (YKMI) more fiercely. The issue even took Indonesia’s Ministry of Health to court to challenge the lack of a halal-based booster vaccine option for citizens.
According to an estimation by World Population Review in 2022, Islam has 1.97 billion adherents, making up about 25 percent of the world population. Low vaccine uptake has the potential to seriously undermine Covid-19 vaccination programs, as very high immunization levels are critical for virus suppression. In Indonesia, the primary vaccination rate stands at a mere 62 percent. Vaccination rates in Indonesia are slow but this could also be influenced by other factors besides the absence of a halal vaccine from the earlier days of the pandemic. However, in a majority-Mulism-based society, it is a huge concern that makes the achievement of herd immunity difficult.
Speaking with some Muslims on this topic, a 22-year-old female Malaysian currently residing in Korea explained, “As Muslims, it’s super important because we believe what we consume will also affect our lives and so if we don’t consume halal, our good deeds will not be accepted for a while.”
On this note, Pharmaniaga, one of Malaysia's largest pharmaceutical groups, is establishing the world’s first halal vaccine and insulin plants. According to the press release issued in October this year, it is scheduled to be commercialized in 2024 for vaccine and 2025 for insulin, with 90 percent and 70 percent construction progress respectively.
Who else stands to benefit from halal vaccines?
Although halal topics concern Muslims, halal vaccines are also of interest to other groups. For example, vegans, vegetarians, and Jews are also interested in these halal vaccines, accounting for an even larger percentage of the global population.
The vegan community also takes a similar stance encouraging vegans to take the vaccine on the premise of promoting public health. Although their ethical stance on minimizing the suffering of animals is valid, the devastating implications which can affect human lives are just as important.
Regarding the pork gelatine in the nasal flu vaccine, the Jewish Kashrut and Medicines Information Service publicly stated that porcine and other animal-derived ingredients are acceptable in non-oral products including nasal vaccines.
Not only in Muslim-majority countries but for the sake of vaccine inclusivity, these vaccines should also be made available in other countries as the Muslim community is widely dispersed across the globe, and herd immunity can only be achieved if the majority becomes vaccinated. In this regard, vaccine manufacturers should keep this consideration in mind when producing future booster shots to deal with the Covid-19 variants and find alternatives to some stabilizers and enzymes traditionally used in vaccines.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe.” These famously repeated words throughout the Covid-19 pandemic also ring true in this scenario.