AstraZeneca's vaccine against COVID-19 was cleared Friday for use in Indonesia after the drug regulator declared it safe and clerics in the world’s most populous Muslim nation approved it for emergency use.
Southeast Asia’s biggest economy had delayed using AstraZeneca's product after more than a dozen countries in Europe suspended the vaccine due to blood clots developing in some recipients. The World Health Organization said it saw no evidence the vaccine caused the clots, and some European countries were resuming its use.
"The benefits of using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the possible risks, so we can start to use it,” Indonesia’s Food and Drug Authority said in its announcement.
It said the risk of death from COVID-19 was much greater and people should be vaccinated as scheduled. At the same news conference, an official from Indonesia's highest Islamic body declared the AstraZeneca vaccine "haram,” or forbidden in Islam, for containing a pig derivative but still approved its use by Muslims given the emergency situation of the ongoing pandemic.
Asrorun Niam Sholeh, from the Indonesia Ulema Council, said trusted experts have explained the dangers posed by people not being vaccinated while halal vaccines are lacking.
"Indonesian Muslims must participate in the COVID-19 vaccination program implemented by the government to achieve herd immunity and be free from the COVID-19 outbreak,” Sholeh said.
He emphasized, however, that once the pandemic is under control or is no longer an emergency, the government should do better to guarantee the availability of halal vaccines, given the majority of Indonesians are Muslims.
Sholeh, the head of the council’s fatwa commission, said the AstraZeneca vaccine used trypsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins, from pigs during its production process. He did not give further details. AstraZeneca and other manufacturers have said pork products are not part of their COVID-19 vaccines.
A concern about vaccines for other diseases has been pork-derived gelatin, a widely used stabilizer that ensures vaccines remain safe and effective during storage and transport.
Health ministry official Siti Nadia Tarmizi said distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine would start by next Monday. "The earlier we distribute the vaccine, the earlier we can get out of this pandemic,” she said.
The food and drug monitoring agency, however, cautioned against the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people with a low blood platelet count and blood clotting disorders.
Indonesia has received 1.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 8, through COVAX, a multilateral effort seeking to ensure equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccination, with another 10 million more expected next month.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is the second to arrive in Indonesia after the one made by Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac, which received the approval of the Muslim council.
The country remains the worst hit in Southeast Asia with more than 1.4 million cases as of Friday and over 39,300 deaths.
Indonesia aims to inoculate more than 181 million of its 270 million people by March 2022 as part of a free vaccination drive that began in January.