Hungary Becomes First in EU to Approve Russian Covid Vaccine

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Hungary became the first European Union nation to approve Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine as Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes a pre-election risk to accelerate the country’s exit from the coronavirus crisis.

Hungary’s drug regulator granted emergency approval for Russia’s Sputnik V and the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc, Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said at a briefing on Thursday. The decision followed pressure by Orban to fast-track the process and skirt the EU, which has yet to authorize either one.

While Orban is regularly criticized in the EU for his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, he may only be the first rather than the sole western leader to secure alternative supplies from the east amid the slow roll-out of western vaccines that has left governments exasperated. Budapest is also considering procuring a Chinese vaccine from Sinopharm.

Like many of its EU peers, Hungary has faced public skepticism of the vaccines and so far has administered them for only a little more than 1% of its population amid a trickle of doses from Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc.

The government has warned that without a ramp-up, curbs like an evening curfew and the closure of some businesses could be in effect through the summer.

Orban is also under the gun before 2022 parliamentary elections, which are expected to be the closest in years after the opposition united against the four-term leader. He has pledged to protect the living standards of Hungarians, a tall order after his cabinet projected a 6.4% economic decline for 2020.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto will be in Moscow on Friday where he may agree to purchase more than a million doses of the Russian vaccine, Index news website reported on Thursday, without citing anyone.

Despite the emergency approval, which is for an initial six months, Hungary’s health authority is still reviewing the Russian version in tests and mass inoculations may happen only after its sign-off, state television reported late Wednesday, citing the national drug regulator.

“We only want to procure vaccines that have been already used on several million people and ones that Hungarian authorities deemed safe and effective and that they’ve approved,” Cabinet Minister Gulyas said.

Hungary is also ready to purchase more than a million doses from Sinopharm within days of regulatory approval, Orban told state radio on Jan. 15.

Ideological Shift

The willingness to go ahead with eastern procurements follows Orban’s ideological shift from once being a staunch supporter western values to a leader who has vowed to eradicate liberal democracy, cultivated ties with strongmen and frequently clashed with the EU over his decade-old consolidation of power.

Orban has sought to follow the warming of political ties with business deals, including a Russia-backed $15 billion expansion of Hungary’s sole nuclear plant and a $2 billion rail link between Budapest and Belgrade, part of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Extending the deal-making to vaccines the EU hasn’t yet approved isn’t without risks. Chinese and Russian developers have been slow compared with their western peers in releasing clinical trial data, raising questions over transparency, efficacy and safety.

Getting Hungarians to trust vaccines is also a challenge after Orban, an early supporter of Russia’s Sputnik, said people wouldn’t be told which doses they’d be getting. Citizens will be able to choose which vaccine they’d like to receive, Gulyas said on Thursday.

Hungarians are slowly overcoming their skepticism of Covid-19 vaccines, with 33% responding “Yes” to a question on whether they would get the shot if it became available, compared with 27% who said “No,” according to a survey by the state statistics office published on Thursday. That compared with 15% in favor and 36% against a month earlier.

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