Hungary tries to speed up vaccinations by turning to China and Russia

Hungary tries to speed up vaccinations by turning to China and Russia
Prime Minister Viktor Orban receives the jab for influenza in October. He has yet to be given the vaccine for COVID-19.
By bne IntelliNews February 8, 2021

Hungary has blamed the European Union for the slow roll-out of its COVID-19 vaccination campaign and has turned to its eastern allies Russia and China for help. Without waiting for approval from the European Medicines Agency or for rigorous tests by its own watchdog, the government has become the first country in the EU to turn to Chinese and Russian manufacturers to speed up its vaccination programme.

Now the government plans to inoculate every Hungarian over the age of 60 by March 15, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state media on February 5. 

If it succeeds, the government hopes this will make up for its mistakes last year in handling the pandemic, while also demonstrating that the country can handle crisis by itself, the importance of its strong ties with China and Russia,  and that it does it not need the help of the EU.

Government officials have accused EU leaders for the slow delivery of vaccines, while critics accuse the government of trying to divert attention away from the soaring infection rate over the winter and its confused response.

"Everyone was expecting that the vaccination will be launched at a tremendous rate in the EU, which will allow the existing restrictive measures in Europe to be lifted, but the expectation could not be fulfilled by the European Commission," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in mid-January.  

In response, Hungary has turned to China and Russia to diversify its supplies. "It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse", Orban has said numerous times, quoting Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping. 

Turning to Russia and China

Hungary, which has a population of 9.7 million, has ordered a total of 19.7mn doses from western manufacturers, including AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, which would be enough to provide immunity to every child and adult. The government had ordered a total of 4.4mn doses of the vaccine as part of a joint European Union order.  

Hungary received the first delivery of close to 10,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines before Christmas. But as supply problems surfaced in January,  Orban asked his foreign minister to speed up talks and to secure further supplies from China and Russia.

Under an agreement reached with Moscow a week ago, Hungary will receive 2mn doses over three months. The Russian Sputnik V had received a preliminary license from Hungarian authorities, while they still await certification from the European Medical Agency (EMA).

Hungary also agreed with China on the shipment of 5mn doses of Sinopharm a week ago. Deliveries will take place in four phases over four months. In February, March, and April Hungary is slated to receive 500,000 doses per month and 3.5mn in May. Hungary was the first country in the EU to give the green light for the use of Sinopharm’s drug. 

The agreement with the Chinese manufacturer came a day after the government issued a decree calling for a green light for any vaccine that had been administered to at least 1mn in at least three other countries. The decree made it possible to circumvent an authorisation from the Hungarian National Institute of Pharmacy and Food and Health (OGYEI), which gave its blessing to the Sinopharm drug days later.

Some Hungarian medical professionals have complained about the lack of transparency of the approval process.

Hungary’s largest opposition party DK said that the government was gambling with the health and lives of Hungarians. It should be up to the European Medicines Agency to decide whether the vaccine was safe and effective, they said. The government in response accused the DK of fearmongering and trying to undermine the vaccination campaign.

Confused plans

Opposition critics argue that by criticising the EU the government is trying to shift blame for the confusion surrounding its own vaccine rollout plan.

In late November, Orban boasted that the vaccination plan had been completed and that the government had settled on 13,000 sites where vaccinations would be administered. Orban hinted that the inoculations would take place in healthcare centers and voting locations, schools, kindergartens if a large quantity of the vaccine were to arrive at once. In December, he claimed that with enough vaccines Hungary could inoculate its entire population in a weekend. His comments were later corrected by health officials.

Later GPs received a letter that sought to determine which offices fulfilled minimum requirements to be one of the 5,000 vaccination sites, suggesting that details of the plan had only just begun.

What has been published of the plan is merely a list that prioritizes groups in order. The official report has not yet been made public, but Hungarian media reported on Friday that there is an 80-page version. 

In the first phase, in- and out-patient staff, dentists, GPs, maternity nurses, school doctors, and pharmacists receive the vaccine (173,000 people). The next in line are nursery home staff and inhabitants (147,000). 

Hungary has completed the first and second phase in the first week of February. So far, 264,530 people have been vaccinated, and 92,773 of them have already received their second jab.

The next phase kicked off on Friday with the inoculation of elderly people above 60. Vaccination began with the most senior age groups. The government wants to complete this in a matter of days at 1,080 general practitioner districts. The above 60 age group, totalling 1.7mn, could be vaccinated in four weeks. 

"If things go according to plan, then by early March the number of people who have had at least their first jab and the number of recovered will rise over 1mn,"  the prime minister said in his regular weekly interview on Friday, where Orban laid out an ambitious plan for the pace of vaccination.

The number of inoculated people and those that had recovered from COVID-19 in the previous six months "will approach 2mn by early April and with the Chinese vaccine, it will exceed that level", he added. This would lead to a 25% immunity rate among 8mn adults.

The fourth stage of the vaccination will include military and law-enforcement staff, and back-office healthcare workers, members of the diplomatic corps, and politicians (110,000).

Front-office public administration staff  (277,200) and 18-59 years old with high-risk underlying disease are next (470,900).

The seventh stage of the vaccination plan included critical infrastructure workers (31,000) and then all 18-59 year-olds not included in the above groups (4.38mn).

People were told to register on a government website that is run by the Prime Minister’s Office and its communication chief Antal Rogan. Officials denied that private data would be used for other purposes, but these reports did not help allay concerns of those critical of the Orban government.

There were also conflicting statements whether registration was a pre-condition for getting the jab, or not. Officials are now saying that registration is not mandatory, but it is advised.

Pandemic plateauing

The government has also been under fire for the confusion over its lockdown rules. The first wave of the pandemic cost relatively few lives in Hungary (and among its neighbours) but in the autumn the country produced some of the worst statistics. In October the number of fatalities stood at 781, a month later it reached 1,891. By the end of November, the number of deaths neared 5,000, and it exceeded the 10,000 level on January 5.

Daily deaths per 100,000 people soared in Hungary in November and December. The number of deaths in November was 50% higher than in the same period a year ago, at 15,000. COVID-19 claimed 3,000 lives during the month, leaving 2,000 unaccounted for as monthly death figures hover around 10,000.

The latest data shows the pandemic hitting a plateau. In the past four weeks, all statistics showed an improving trend. The number of daily registered coronavirus infections has halved in the last month, with a similarly reassuring decrease in the number of active cases (from 158,548 to 92,094).

The death toll showed perhaps an even more important change; a steady decline with less than half as many deaths on the last day of January as at the very beginning of the month. For the first time since October, the test ratio fell from WHO’s absolute upper limit of 12% to around 8%.

Mass vaccination is the precondition for reopening the economy, a key priority for Orban, facing a tight election race in 2022. After consolidating state finances and the economy, the government is now running a big budget deficit.

The pandemic has plunged the country into the steepest recession since the 2008 economic crisis and wiped out its achievements in reducing state debt, which is back to the levels when the government swept into power in 2010 with its first supermajority.

The government will now launch a new national consultation survey asking people about reopening the country. The current restrictions are in force until March 1.

Cabinet chief Gergely Gulyas announced on Friday that the government is planning to follow a gradual and cautious approach. The condition for easing restrictions depends on improving health statistics.

The next phase would come a month later. At present there is a curfew in place until 8 pm, shops must be closed an hour earlier. All events are banned, and cinemas, theatres, swimming pools and gyms remain closed. Bars and restaurants cannot serve guests, food and drink are available for take-away. Hotels can remain open for business travelers only.