Religious concerns about vaccination have existed as long as vaccination has existed as a science. Some religions and their denominations object to the components in a vaccine, the way that it is made, or even the need for it. With the COVID-19 vaccine, the same concerns exist, and Muslim religious authorities are weighing in. According to the Associated Press:
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.Concern among Muslims over halal status of COVID-19 vaccine, AP, December 20, 2020
In that same article, a rabbi is quoted as saying that vaccines containing pork products are not necessarily against Jewish prohibitions on consuming pork. He explains that taking a vaccine via an injection is not a “natural” way of consuming pork, so it is allowed. Of course, other rabbis have different opinions.
This questioning of vaccine components and how they fit within religious instructions shows how complicated public health responses to epidemics can get. On the one hand, public health needs to measure the ethics of the interventions they recommend. On the other, they also need to keep in mind the complexity of the population being served. Even within a subpopulation — a town or a neighborhood — there are special considerations to make in planning how to respond.
Time will tell who declines vaccination on religious grounds and how religious authorities respond to those concerns.