As the global pharmaceutical industry races to develop a vaccine to protect people from the coronavirus pandemic, two Saudi Arabian entities are working towards developing a COVID-19 vaccine in line with Islamic law, according to a leader on the project.
Scientists at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, led by Dr. Anwar Hashem, are collaborating with SaudiVax, a tenant of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
In the development of vaccines, scientists use live cells that need nutrients to live and survive. These nutrients could include elements that are not considered permissible under Islamic law - for example ingredients derived from pigs like gelatin or bile. Eating pork and drinking alcohol are forbidden in Islam under ordinary circumstances.
The discovery of a vaccine using only ingredients permitted by Islamic law should ease hesitancy from Muslim populations who may have religious concerns about components of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Professor Mazen Hassanain, a leader of the team and founder of Saudi Vax, the first private vaccine development biotech company in Saudi Arabia.
Muslim populations in countries in West and Central Africa, as well as East Asia, have historically been hesitant to vaccinate, citing religious and cultural reasons.
Vaccines labeled permissible by Islamic law would be “very important,” especially if it would influence more Muslims to get vaccinated, according to Dr. Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health.
Saudi Arabia’s emerging vaccine industry
The initiative is a breakthrough for the Middle East, where countries have previously not developed their own vaccine industries and remain dependent on outside entities for vaccines, according to former US Science Envoy Dr. Peter Hotez.
Since its inception in 2016, SaudiVax has been trying to strengthen the region’s vaccine development and manufacturing industry.
SaudiVax is “working very hard to fill the gap,” by building a facility for vaccine development and manufacturing that will likely be fully operational in two years and owned by King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, according to Hassanain.
Hassanain said that Saudi Arabia, being a G20 country, has many reasons to spearhead the development of a regional vaccine industry, especially considering the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to be proactive in situations like this. The COVID-19 vaccine initiative is a good trial. if it comes on time, it’s perfect. If not, it is good experience,” said Hassanain in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
Supported by multiple government sectors, the SaudiVax facility intends to train Saudi scientists to work in the vaccine development and manufacturing sector in the Kingdom.
Hassanain said SaudiVax’s mission aligns with the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and develop programs to benefit its citizens.
The shared goals between SaudiVax and Saudi Vision 2030 include localizing a new industry, increasing women’s labor force participation, and improving healthcare, according to Hassanain.
“Our team is 60 percent female – very different from all regional pharmaceutical corporations,” said Hassanain.
“And we are aiming to bring about national health security – something the COVID outbreak has made a priority,” he added.