Hungary looks east for coronavirus vaccines

Published November 28, 2020, 3:09 PM

by Agence-France-Presse

An Aeroflot delivery of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to EU member Hungary last week has sparked new criticism at home and abroad of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s go-it-alone policies.

This handout image released by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry on November 19, 2020, shows Hungarian medical officials carrying to a laboratory the first load of a Russian-made coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine, in Budapest. (Photo by Matyas BORSOS / various sources / AFP)

“We are the first European country to receive such a sample,” said Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in a video showing the plane touching down at Budapest airport.

An initial 10 doses were handed over for local testing, with large-scale deliveries and potentially mass production by a Hungarian firm possible next year if it proves safe and effective, according to Budapest.

Hungarian doctors and experts will soon study the production of Sputnik V in Russia, Szijjarto told a press conference with Russian health minister Mikhail Murashko in Budapest on Friday.

Their visit would allow a speedier decision on approval of the vaccine in Hungary, said Szijjarto.

While Hungary has reserved potential future vaccines from both Europe and the United States, it is also in contact with Chinese and Israeli developers, according to Budapest.

“No one can say for certain when we’ll get a vaccine or when it’ll be mass-produced, (hence) Hungary should also look to the east and cooperate with Russia and China,” a foreign ministry official Tamas Menczer said this week.

Menczer accused critics of the procurement plans of representing the interests of pharmaceutical multinationals and “the Brussels lobby scene”.

– ‘Government propaganda’ –

The European Medicines Agency (EMA), charged with overseeing vaccine approval in the European Union, has yet to assess the Russian drug, which Moscow said this week showed 95 percent effectiveness in latest trials.

Earlier this month, EU officials warned — without mentioning Hungary — that marketing vaccines unauthorised by Brussels would go against Europe’s vaccine strategy.

“If you were to market such a vaccine on European territory, then obviously, we would have to take action in order to ensure that these rules are respected,” said a European Commission spokesperson Vivian Loonela, without providing further detail.

Hungary and Poland are already at loggerheads with Brussels over the EU’s long-term budget. And Hungary’s maverick approach could spark a new rift. 

But Orban’s domestic critics are also wary about the arrival of Sputnik V.

“Maybe it will be safe and effective, but this is less about the virus or the vaccine, and more about government propaganda telling us that, when in trouble, the Russians are friends who help us first,” said Gabriella Lantos, a health expert with the New World opposition party. 

Meanwhile, Hungarian pro-government media are in favour of Sputnik V and criticise Brussels for being cautious. 

While Orban insists that his foreign policy of opening up towards the east is pragmatic, it is a strategy that has seen him accused of being Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Trojan horse” in the EU and NATO.

Orban brushes off such claims and insists his country’s geographic position on the EU’s eastern fringe forces cooperation with larger powers. 

Tamas Denes, a spokesman for doctors’ trade union Reszasz, cautiously welcomed the arrival of Sputnik V, but admitted that “it is hard not to see politics in it”. 

However, “refusing Sputnik just because it was developed in Russia is not a good idea either, it is good to have options,” Denes told AFP.  

“I hope for safe vaccines regardless of the country of origin,” he said.

– Vaccine scepticism –

Nevertheless, convincing the Hungarian public to be inoculated may prove difficult. 

An Ipsos survey last month showed willingness in Hungary to take a Covid-19 vaccine if available was among the lowest in Europe, ahead only of Poland and Russia.  

A “dangerous” potential side-effect of embracing Sputnik V could be that it might “fuel existing scepticism about vaccines, leading to public health risks,” according to analyst Peter Kreko of the Political Capital think-tank.  

With the EU having signed advanced purchasing contracts with western developers for hundreds of millions of doses of possible future vaccines, Kreko says it is still more likely that Hungary will opt for western inoculations. 

“But if there is a delay in a vaccine from the EU, the government could approve Sputnik and paint itself as saviours of the population, while raising tensions with Brussels,” he told AFP.