Hungary plans to start vaccinating its citizens with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as early as possibly this week, making it the first EU country to do so.
Hungary is also the first EU country where national authorities have given the green light to the Russian jab, which has not been approved yet by the EU medicines regulator.
Russia will ship two million vaccine doses to Hungary in the next three months, under a deal between Budapest and Moscow, enough for one million people. Hungary has a population of 10 million.
Hungary’s regulator, at the end of January, also granted emergency-use approval to China’s Sinopharm, again a first in the EU, after a government decree streamlined the country’s vaccine approval procedure.
Prime minister Viktor Orban had said in mid-January he hoped the authority would act quickly.
Hungary bought five million vaccines from Sinopharm, which has also not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency.
EU member states are allowed to purchase vaccines outside of the contracts which the EU signed collectively for more than two billion doses with different (European and US) pharmaceutical companies.
Critics, however, question the rushed authorisation procedure in Hungary, and opposition politicians have voiced support for the vaccines approved by EMA.
While all governments are seeking to secure vaccines as fast as they can so they can open up their economies, so far only Orban has chosen to break with the EU’s vaccine strategy.
With elections next spring, the Hungarian premier is under pressure to reopen the economy, as opinion polls show a neck-and-neck race, with a united opposition against him for the first time.
Orban’s Fidesz party has lost the support of half a million voters since last August, according to a December survey by Zavecz Research.
“The most important factor in the government’s strategy is the 2022 elections. The government was startled by the economic effects of the pandemic, as the social and economic impact of the second wave started to eat away their support,” Andras Biro-Nagy at the Budapest-based Policy Solutions told EUobserver.
In the second quarter of 2020, the Hungarian economy shrunk by 13.6 percent, halting seven years of growth.
“It’s crucial for the government to win a few months and give the economy more time to recover in time for the elections,” Biro-Nagy said.
“The problem is not that the government is looking for vaccines elsewhere, but that health authorities have visibly come under political pressure,” Biro-Nagy said.
Biro-Nagy added that reaching out for the Russian and Chinese vaccines also is a “logical consequence of Orban’s eurosceptic communication”, and his previous efforts to strengthen ties with China and Russia.
Orban said last week at an economic conference that for his government “the vaccine is not a political issue”.
“As far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or write, as long as it catches mice. Therefore we’re using both Western and Eastern vaccines: Russian, Chinese, American and British vaccines,” he said.
He also announced various economic measures last week, spending money on key groups of voters.
Orban plans to hand out extra payments for pensioners from February, and scrap income tax for younger people from 2022.
The government is also extending a family benefits program, a popular policy with undecided voters, and plans zero-percent interest loans to small businesses.
A survey conducted by Zavecz Research in December shows discontent with the government’s management of the pandemic’s health and economic aspect, receiving an overall score of 2.7 (with 5 being the best score.)
The EU Commission has said that the liability rests with the member state if it uses a vaccine outside of the EU framework and that it is “very much in favour of an authorisation through the EMA”.
But with vaccines arriving in EU countries at a sluggish pace, China and Russia see a possible political win.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this month that “every vaccine is welcome in the European Union” once it has been approved by EMA, and that she had discussed this with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
French president Emmanuel Macron last week described China’s efficiency at producing and exporting vaccine doses globally, as a “clear diplomatic success,” and “a little bit humiliating for us.”
Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, himself facing elections this autumn, was in Budapest last Friday to inquire about Sputnik V.
Orban himself made clear he has no problem with vaccines not approved by the EU body.
“I will wait my turn and when the time comes, I will choose the Chinese vaccine,” he said in a weekly radio interview last month.
On Tuesday (9 February), Orban said at the 9th Summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries that “Hungary is grateful to the People’s Republic of China, and president Xi Jinping personally, for all the help they have provided in these challenging times.”
Others are less convinced that the solution will come from outside the EU.
“I doubt they will save Europe with their Sputnik,” centre-right EPP MEP Peter Liese told a group of journalists on Tuesday, adding that only one million people have been vaccinated in Russia, but not yet fully with two doses.
Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Simonyte said her country won’t purchase vaccines from Russia, even if the shot is approved by EMA, Bloomberg reported.
Simonyte said she has “no doubt” that Russia’s attempts to sell the vaccine before fully immunising its own people is “yet another geopolitical game.”