HONG KONG – Even with vaccine administration just around the corner, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has warned his ministers to not rush the launch of COVID-19 vaccines over mounting public concerns about whether those vaccines would be certified halal, or permissible under Islamic law.

Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, was set to start administering vaccines for the novel coronavirus as early as next month.

“We should consider public perception regarding the halal status of potential COVID-19 vaccines,” Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was quoted as saying in a meeting. “Public communication regarding the halal status, price, quality and distribution must be well-prepared.”

Ma'ruf Amin, the country’s vice president and a senior Muslim cleric, echoed his sentiments. He has said that the COVID-19 vaccines that will be distributed must receive halal certification from the relevant authorities, although he had previously stated that non-halal vaccines are permissible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Health workers, paramedics, public officials, military and police officers, teaching staff at all levels will be the first to receive the vaccines," said Terawan Agus Putranto, health minister.

“We hope everything is set, meaning that the supply is ready and we have a commitment from the vaccine makers. We are awaiting an EUA [emergency use authorization] from BPOM [The Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency] and a halal certificate from MUI [Indonesian Ulema Council],” said Achmad Yurianto, the Health Ministry’s disease prevention and control director general.

The threat of a vaccine being declared haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, could very well undo all the progress made on that front.

In 2018, the MUI declared that the country’s measles and rubella vaccine was haram. The vaccine, made by the Serum Institute of India in Mumbai, does contain several porcine elements, such as gelatin and the enzyme trypsin.

That move resulted in a huge drop in the number of children vaccinated, with some conservative provinces like Aceh having fewer than one in 10 children vaccinated.

Since then, state-owned Bio Farma PT has joined the race to develop a measles and rubella vaccine that meets halal standards but has stated that the work could take between 15 to 20 years.

Not only is there a long wait time but there are worries that publicizing efforts for halal vaccines would legitimize and encourage vaccine hesitancy.

But with the president’s nod toward halal concerns, it seems that would be an extra hurdle for the Muslim majority country to take into account while battling the pandemic.

Airlangga Hartarto, Indonesia's coordinating economic minister who also heads the country's COVID-19 response team, has assured the public that the government will ensure the vaccine would meet halal standards and receive the certification.

Relying on Chinese vaccine firms

The Southeast Asian country would be relying on supplies from three Chinese vaccine manufacturers, namely Sinovac Biotech Ltd., Sinopharm Group, Cansino Biologics Inc.

Altogether, the trio pledged some 18.1 million doses of potential COVID-19 vaccines that may be administered to around 9.1 million people, according to the Indonesian Health Ministry.

Sinovac, which is testing its vaccine candidate in West Java, has pledged 3 million doses. Sinopharm has promised about 15 million doses, while Cansino has pledged 100,000 single-shot vaccines for Indonesia.

“Considering the number of clinical trial sites outside China, it seems Chinese companies will focus on launches in Asian and South and Central American countries initially using country-specific clinical trial data as the likelihood of Chinese vaccines to be accepted in those markets is high,” said Venkat Kartheek Vale, a pharma analyst at Globaldata.

Chinese players are also needed to break new ground as they are up against stiff competition with major players such as Astrazeneca plc, Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. already established in Europe and North American markets.

“This strategic move can help Chinese companies to enter new markets and improve diplomatic ties with other nations,” said Vale. “Moreover, with lack of late-stage clinical trials from key players like Moderna and Pfizer in Asian countries and Astrazeneca focusing only in India with a phase II/III study through its partner, Serum Institute of India provides Chinese companies with greater advantage to focus on Asian markets.”

Indonesia’s Bio Farma is also working closing with Sinovac to test and manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine while it develops a novel vaccine with the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology based in Jakarta.

If Indonesia is able to overcome the vaccine hesitancy and gather enough vaccines for its huge population, collaborations like that could help with its pharmaceutical exports.

“Indonesia's pharmaceutical exports will see a positive growth trajectory. As Indonesia's pharmaceutical sector continues to mature, firms will seek to capture opportunities within the broader Southeast Asian market,” Sakshi Sikka, senior pharmaceuticals and health care analyst at Fitch Solutions, told BioWorld.

“We do, however, expect much of the increased output to be used in the local market, given the widening insurance coverage in Indonesia.”