Hungary has become the first EU country to grant approval to the Russian state-developed Covid-19 vaccine, the first time a member state has broken ranks to give unilateral emergency approval for a jab.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff confirmed that the government had approved both the Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik V, and the AstraZeneca jab, while criticising slow procurement through the EU programme.
“If vaccine shipments arrive at this rate from Brussels, we can only get vaccines from other, alternative sources,” Gergely Gulyas told a news conference on Thursday.
The Hungarian approval comes as the EU this week criticised Moscow over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on his return to Russia from Germany, following his recovery from a nerve agent attack blamed on the Kremlin.
Budapest’s move to acquire the Russian vaccine will increase pressure on the EU’s joint coronavirus strategy. Under EU law, member states can “temporarily authorise the distribution of an unauthorised medicinal product” in response to a pandemic.
But the European Commission has previously warned Hungary that it would risk undermining public confidence in coronavirus immunisation should it bypass the EU medicines regulator and roll out Sputnik V. Brussels points out that any member state distributing a medicine under the emergency clause carries full liability in case of problems such as severe side effects.
Budapest also reiterated on Thursday its intention to procure up to 1m doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine. Mr Orban last week said the Chinese and Russians were “vaccinating their own peoples in the tens of millions”, proving that both jabs were safe to use.
With a population of 9.8m, Hungary’s Covid-19 death toll stands at 11,700, with most of the deaths occurring in the second wave of the pandemic, which hit central Europe harder than the first. The government registered 1,400 new cases on Thursday, down from high rates of more than 6,000 new infections per day in early December.
Moscow this week said it had distributed 2m vaccines nationwide but regional doctors suggest that the true number of vaccinated people is much lower.
Any deal to procure mass supplies of Sputnik V is likely to be discussed by Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto during his visit to Moscow on Friday.
In approving the jab, which many ordinary Russians remain suspicious of, Hungary joins Venezuela, Turkmenistan, Belarus and a handful of other export markets in approving Sputnik V. The United Arab Emirates also said on Thursday that it had granted emergency use approval to the vaccine.
“This decision is very important as it demonstrates that the vaccine's safety and efficacy of over 90 per cent are highly regarded by our partners in Hungary,” said Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a state sovereign wealth fund that has financed the jab’s development and marketing.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that she had spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin about the possibility of “joint production” and “applications” of Sputnik V.
She said collaboration was possible “in a pandemic, in the humanitarian area, despite all our political differences, which are quite large at the moment”. However, she added, the “precondition for the vaccine being used in the EU and for its joint production in the EU is that it is approved by [the European Medicines Agency]”.
Hungary has been testing Sputnik V since early December. While the jab was approved by the country’s Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition for an initial period of six months, it still needs approval from the National Public Health Center before any mass vaccination rollout.
There is a high degree of vaccine scepticism in Hungary. Almost 30 per cent of those surveyed in a January 14 poll by the country’s statistics office, do not want to be vaccinated, while 27 per cent said they would accept the vaccine.
The commission has not responded to a request for comment on Hungary’s action.