Hungarians receive Chinese Covid vaccine as Orban breaks with EU strategy
After more than 11 months of almost total self-isolation, Hungarian Marianne Schmidt, 69, was eager to see her family again after becoming one of the first Europeans to receive a Covid-19 vaccine made in China.
“I just want to live my life,” Schmidt said after receiving his blow in a doctor’s office in Budapest on Thursday.
The vaccine, developed by Chinese Sinopharm, has not been approved for use in the EU, but Hungary has continued on its way, breaking with the EU consensus that any Covid-19 vaccine used in the interior of the block would be cleared by the European Medicines Agency and purchased through its centralized scheme.
Hungary has ordered doses of the BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccines through the EU, but is the only member of the bloc to have also approved the Russian-made Sinopharm and Sputnik V vaccines.
On Sunday, Schmidt was joined by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to receive the Sinopharm jab. “I am vaccinated,” the Hungarian leader wrote on Facebook.
Orban insisted on Friday: “If we didn’t have Russian and Chinese vaccines, we would have big problems.”
By bypassing the EU system, the Hungarian government has taken legal, health and political risks, critics say. But the Russian and Chinese agreements also mean Hungary has access to many more doses than other EU countries.
Hungary had received 18.3 doses of the vaccine per 100 people on Thursday, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. That puts it more than 50% ahead of Denmark, the second best-supplied EU country, which had received 12 doses per 100 inhabitants.
Hungary would be able to immunize more people in the next fortnight than in the previous two months combined thanks to the Sinopharm vaccine, said Gergely Gulyas, an assistant at Orban.
The government began rolling out the Sinopharm vaccine on Wednesday and planned to administer 275,000 doses in the first seven days, said Istvan Gyorgy, secretary of state in Orban’s office for immunization. The government wants to vaccinate 2.4 million people before Easter, or 24% of the population.
Orban cited the long EU buying process and slow distribution as reasons for not relying solely on the bloc’s vaccination strategy. But EU delivery data suggests Hungary has so far been relatively well supplied by the EU program and is not among the countries on the verge of depleting their EU supplies.
He received a combined total of 879,910 doses of the BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccines, but only used 639,517 doses, or about 73%, according to the ECDC.
While the data can be skewed by irregular reporting of vaccine deliveries, 16 other EU countries used a higher proportion of their EU doses than Hungary. In total, Hungary had administered 719,146 shots as of February 24, according to Financial Times data.
In the polarized Hungarian society, the origin of vaccines has become a political question. “Constantly beating Brussels while praising Russia and China” is a common feature of Orban’s Eurosceptic policy, said Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest think-tank Political Capital.
Eurosceptic Orban has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Budapest awarded the country’s largest infrastructure project to Chinese companies and pledged to open a Fudan University campus in the city, the only campus of a Chinese university in the EU.
After Orban announced plans to procure the Chinese-made vaccines, the opposition Democratic Coalition launched a petition against any coup without EMA approval. In turn, the government has called the opposition anti-vaxxers.
While the Sputnik V vaccine has shown high efficacy in clinical trial results recently reviewed in the Lancet medical journal, no studies of similar status have been published for the Sinopharm vaccine.
In addition, most countries, including China, have not administered Sinopharm vaccines to the elderly due to a lack of data, although it has become a cornerstone of the Hungarian strategy.
“We don’t know if it’s good for the elderly or not,” said Dr Ferenc Falus, who was Hungary’s chief medical officer from 2007 to 2010. “We haven’t seen that it’s harmful, but we still don’t know if it’s good. ”
A government communication campaign helped increase the public’s willingness to be vaccinated from 15% in December to 40%. However, only 27% of Hungarians are ready to take the Chinese-made vaccine, according to a Median poll released last month. For voters supporting Orban’s Fidesz party, this number rises to 45%.
Bela Merkely, the rector of Semmelweis Medical University in Hungary and a prominent commentator on the pandemic, said the need for speed was driving government decisions.
“If we rely on the vaccines approved by the EMA, by the same time next year we will still be talking about those who have not yet been vaccinated,” said Merkely, who recently received the Sputnik vaccine. V. “Every day that we do not act, more than 100 people die and more than 3,000 people are infected.”
Hungary’s actions have fueled concerns that other EU countries could sign bilateral deals, as supplies to the bloc will be limited until production increases and a greater variety of jabs becomes available from April. The Czech Republic, which is facing an upsurge in infections, could start using the Sputnik V vaccine, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Sunday.
The European Commission has said Hungary’s decision to approve the Sinopharm vaccine “is not part of the EU’s vaccine strategy” and leaves Budapest vulnerable to claims for damages if there is a problem with the vaccine.
For Schmidt, it didn’t matter that the EMA didn’t approve the Sinopharm vaccine she received, as long as she could now visit her one-and-a-half-year-old grandson.
“I am happy that Hungary approved it so that I can use it,” she said. “If 30 million Chinese were already vaccinated with it, I don’t think I would have any problems either.”
Eva Papp contributed reporting