Part 3 | Religion, the pandemic’s unseen force: Faith in God’s vaccines

Editor's Note: While a microscopic virus is sweeping the world like the plagues of old, an invisible force – not less powerful – is also shaping the way this pandemic unfolds. In Southeast Asia, the influence of religion during the pandemic is most pervasive in predominantly Catholic Philippines and Muslim majority Indonesia.

In this 3-part series, we bring you to deathbeds in Manila and graveyards in Jakarta, Sunday services in churches and Friday prayers in mosques, to show the role of religion in this pandemic that is often viewed only through scientific lens. After a journey into death and grief in Part 1, and a heated debate in Part 2, we leave you with this story of hope.

For most of the day, Father Nicanor Austriaco, 52, wears the long white robe of a Dominican priest, part of an 800-year-old religious order known for preaching the Gospel and spreading devotion to the rosary.

But at times, Austriaco wears another garment – also white. 

In the laboratory, Austriaco is not only a son of Saint Dominic, he is also a respected microbiologist holding a PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ranked as the world’s best university.

Our quest to understand religion in the time of COVID-19 brings us to the virtual doorsteps of this man of faith and science. Austriaco, a Filipino-American priest and professor at Providence College in the United States, is working double time to help one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19: his native Philippines.

Austriaco, who is also a research fellow at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the Philippines, saw in vaccines an opportunity to serve the poor as a priest. Austriaco is developing a yeast-based COVID-19 vaccine to help the country’s poorest communities. 

FAITH AND SCIENCE. Father Nicanor Austriaco, 52, is the Dominican priest and microbiologist working to develop a yeast-based COVID-19 vaccine.

Courtesy of Father Nicanor Austriaco

In an hour-long video interview with Rappler, Austriaco recalled that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was only supposed to be in the Philippines for a 5-day vacation, but that stay was extended to 5 months because of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.

“Because I was stuck in the Philippines for 5 months, with no access to my lab, I pivoted my research initially to computer modeling of the pandemic in the National Capital Region. So, I wanted to see what would happen in terms of the future growth of the pandemic. So, I worked with a computer science physicist colleague at UST, and we developed a computer model for COVID-19,” Austriaco said.

His computer modeling work put him in touch with Octa Research, an independent group of researchers studying the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines. He is now the biologist on Octa’s team of professionals from various disciplines, such as physics and mathematics.

While tracking the virus in Manila, Austriaco eventually turned his attention to the vaccines. Looking at existing data, the microbiologist found that many vaccines in development would need to be transported and stored in temperatures “colder than Antarctica in the winter” – a tall order for the Philippines. 

Faith and science

Austriaco, a Dominican priest for almost 17 years, thought about his order’s parishes in the remote Babuyan Islands, about 30 kilometers north of Luzon island in northern Philippines.

“And the question came to my mind, how are we going to vaccinate our kababayans (countrymen) in Camiguin and Calayan? So one of these is now accessible by air; the other one, you need a 6-hour boat ride from Aparri,” said Austriaco.

After reading a study on how probiotic yeast can deliver antibodies, he then decided to adopt this mechanism and develop a yeast-based COVID-19 vaccine that can be administered orally, something he likens to drinking Yakult.

As a scientist, Austriaco did this in response to the need for a “shelf-stable vaccine” that does not need ultra cold chain facilities. 

But as a priest, he sees this as a “call to service to the poorest of the poor.” 

VACCINATION DRIVE. Senior citizens stay at an observation area after receiving their first dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, at a covered court in Manila, Philippines, March 29, 2021.

Lisa Marie David/Reuters

“I would pray my rosary while walking around UST and I encountered families who were living in their jeepney because they had been evicted from their homes. And, you know, the Lord's call to see and to serve the poor was instrumental in my coming to understand that one of the ways I could do this, to help the poorest of the poor Filipinos, especially the jeepney drivers living next to UST is to try to provide a cheap, safe, and efficacious way for them to be vaccinated,” he said.

For Austriaco, it is faith that continues to influence the work he does. 

“Professionally, I was a scientist first before I was a priest, but personally, I’m a priest first before I’m a scientist,” he said.

Vaccine hesitancy

Aside from logistics, the Philippines faces significant challenges in its ambitious goal to vaccinate 70 million Filipinos by the end of 2021. 

On March 1, the Philippine government kicked off its national vaccination program amid deep skepticism. A survey by Octa Research conducted from January 26 to February 1 found that only 19% of Filipinos were willing to get vaccinated. Austriaco attributes this to “uncertainty and fear.” 

DEFYING FEAR. Private health professionals residing in Pasig City receive a dose of AstraZeneca from a vaccinator during the first day of vaccination for medical, dental clinics, and private health workers at Pasig City Hall mega parking, March 26, 2021.

Photo by Rappler

But this was not always the case. A survey by the Vaccine Confidence Project found that as late as 2015, 82% of Filipinos believed that vaccines are safe and effective. In just 3 years, this number dropped to 21% and 22%, respectively, after the Philippine government botched a pilot dengue immunization program and failed to stem massive disinformation in its aftermath.

Fear of vaccines following the dengue controversy was followed by outbreaks of previously eradicated or controlled diseases such as polio and measles.

Austriaco, however, is confident that more people will take the jabs once they see others whom they trust – including religious leaders – doing the same.

“Once they see their colleagues being vaccinated, vaccine confidence is increasing, because it is primarily the witness of people. It's the witness of people that allows them to see that the vaccines are safe,” Austriaco said.

As for his yeast-based vaccine, Austriaco said it depends not only on science.

When asked when this vaccine will be available, Austriaco told Rappler, “When God allows.”

“So I have told the Lord, I will do the very best science I can do. But one of the things you know as a scientist is, it's not effort. Science is not about effort. They will say science is effort and luck. For me it’s about effort and grace. I've worked amongst the best in the world. If you look at the discoveries that have littered science, molecular biology, in the last 50 years, there is a lot of effort, but there's a lot of Providence as well,” Austriaco said.

Vaccines: ‘Halal or haram?

In Indonesia, religion has also played a role in the vaccination drive especially in a recent controversy involving the vaccines of AstraZeneca. The main question: Are COVID-19 vaccines halal (permissible) or haram (forbidden) like pork and liquor?

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in its fatwa (ruling) dated March 16 stated that AstraZeneca was haram because in its production process it used trypsin from pigs. 

The use of AstraZeneca is, however, currently permitted because a real threat exists if one is not vaccinated. In addition, there is limited availability of vaccines and there have been guarantees of their safety. For the Sinovac vaccine, MUI said the Chinese-made vaccine is holy and lawful so it can be used.

RELIGIOUS LEADERS. Clerics of Nahdlatul Ulama receive a dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine as part of a mass vaccination program in Surabaya, Indonesia, March 23, 2021.

Photo by Antara Foto/Moch Asim via Reuters

Although labeling AstraZeneca as haram, MUI allowed its use due to an emergency situation during the pandemic. “If only the existing vaccines are haram, that’s fine. But if there are halal ones, use the halal ones. If there are not enough of them? Prioritize using the halal ones. If the halal ones run out, use the haram ones,” said Anwar Abbas, deputy chairperson of MUI. “Using what is haram is an emergency.”

The chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) executive board, KH Robikin Emhas, explained that based on religious principles, what were previously prohibited or forbidden could be allowed in an emergency situation. 

“If someone is in the middle of the forest and hasn’t eaten for days, for example, then he finds carcasses, pigs for example. He has a choice: To eat pork (which is unclean) and to live, or not to eat but to put his life in danger. Islam allows him to eat that which is haram. This is called an emergency,” he said.

HALAL. A student of Lirboyo Islamic Boarding School receives a dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine as part of a mass vaccination program in Kediri, East Java province, Indonesia, March 23, 2021.

Photo by Prasetia Fauzani/Antara Foto via Reuters

This principle of emergency was also a consideration for the East Java NU (PWNU) when it issued a vaccination fatwa dated March 10. East Java is the main base of NU, the largest Islamic mass organization in Indonesia. In the letter, the PWNU said that vaccination is an effort to stop the pandemic, and vaccines (including AstraZeneca) are sacred because there are no unclean elements in the final product. 

KH Mutawakil Alallah, chairman of the MUI East Java and former chairman of the PWNU East Java, was the first person to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca on March 22 at the Wibawa Delta Hall, Sidoarjo, East Java.

NU’s Robikin supported Mutawakkil for two reasons: First, his legal basis was clear, and second, he served as a good role model for religious followers to understand their religion better. 

“In essence, religious teachings provide a solution in every situation,” said Robikin. “If Sinovac is not halal, from the start I committed to registering for the vaccine because the government guarantees its safety, even though it is not halal.”

VENDORS, WORKERS. A man receives his first dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine for COVID-19, during a mass vaccination program for vendors and workers at a shopping mall in Tangerang, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, March 1, 2021.

Photo by Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters

Although vaccination is key to fighting the pandemic, not everyone was initially willing to get vaccinated. A survey conducted by the COVID-19 Task Force with the World Health Organization and Unicef in September 2020 found that around 65% of respondents were willing to accept vaccines, 27% were doubtful, and 8% refused. Part of the reason for refusal was religious factors, including the halal issue.

To convince them, the government is cooperating with religious figures, apart from public opinion leaders. The head of the COVID-19 task force public communication division, Hery Trianto, said religious leaders can exercise their influence through their fatwas

In a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, the question of allowing the use of vaccines becomes important. “With the issuance of the MUI fatwa that vaccines are holy and lawful, it will be very helpful for general public acceptance of vaccines,” he said.

When the government started the first vaccination program using Sinovac on January 13, five religious leaders in Indonesia were among the first to be vaccinated with President Joko Widodo. 

FOR CLERICS. Indonesia's Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin shows AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine as part of a mass vaccination program for Nahdlatul Ulama's clerics in Surabaya, Indonesia, March 23, 2021.

Photo by Antara Foto/Moch Asim via Reuters

“The religious leaders then asked the public not to hesitate to get vaccinated,” said Hery. “Apart from religious guidance in dealing with COVID-19, another important role is through his example. Because it has quite a strong campaign effect,” said Robikin. 

The role of religion

Our journey from Jakarta to Manila, in this 3-part series, brings us back to our question from the beginning: What is the role of religion in the time of COVID-19?

Austriaco, the priest and scientist, stood firm when we posed this question to him.

“Religion is not a role,” Austriaco replied. “Religion is life.”

FAITH. Catholics attend the first Mass during the Feast of the Black Nazarene at Quiapo Church, January 9, 2021.

Photo by Rappler

“I am not a priest because it is a role. I'm a priest because of an encounter with the risen Lord, who died for me and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and that is a historical reality in the same way that there was a zoonotic transmission of a SARS coronavirus, the third lethal one, in December 2019. The assumption for science is that religion is myth and science is a fact. That’s not how I view it,” Austriaco said.

Our conversation ended with a viral quote attributed to Pope Francis, though the Vatican has not confirmed that the Pope has actually said this. In this quote shared widely in Catholic social media circles and cited even by a prominent bishop in the Philippines, the Pope is supposed to have said, “I am vaccinated by the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ: No virus can touch me.”

If indeed the Pope said this, according to Austriaco, he could have meant that while the virus “is a cause of profound anxiety,” knowing Jesus means that “I am inoculated and vaccinated against fear.” The Pope, in other words, could have been speaking in metaphorical terms, referring to the “psychological and existential damage” caused by the pandemic.

Austriaco said the Pope, in any case, could not have been speaking “in terms of physiological and biological terminology” – because he himself has been vaccinated against COVID-19. “What he has done does not suggest that he believes that faith alone will protect you against the biological ravaging of this disease.”

“The risen Lord does shield us against the ravages of this virus,” Austriaco said, “but the risen Lord himself has given us these vaccines and asked us to use the vaccines that have been made through the guidance of his hands, to be vaccinated to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, especially the poorest of the poor.”

The pandemic shows how religion, in its many forms, is a force that shapes this ailing world. – with reports from Jezreel Ines/Rappler.com

This story, a collaboration between Rappler and Indonesia’s Tempo Magazine, was published with support from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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