Politics

EU vaccine war rages: Orban defies Brussels again as China delivers vaccine to Hungary

Viktor Orban hits out at EU over coronavirus vaccine roll out

China’s Sinopharm will deliver to Hungary enough vaccines to inoculate 250,000 people in each month between February and April, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff announced last week.

Gergely Gulyas also told a government briefing that in May Sinopharm would deliver enough vaccines to inoculate 1.75 million people. Hungary announced in January that it had reached a deal with Sinopharm, becoming the first EU country to purchase a Chinese vaccine.

Speaking to Hungarian state radio on Friday, Prime Minister Orban said Hungary may also start inoculating people with Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine this week after it granted the shot emergency use approval, making it the first EU country to do so.

It is scheduled to receive 600,000 doses of Sputnik and another half a million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine this month, potentially allowing it to speed up its inoculation programme despite delays in Western vaccine deliveries.

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EU countries so far are relying almost entirely on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but Hungary’s drug regulator approved Sputnik V for use last month.

Under a deal also signed last month, Russia will ship two million vaccine doses to Hungary in the coming three months, enough for 1 million people. Hungary, with a population of 10 million, received the first 40,000 doses last week.

Mr Orban said so far 264,530 Hungarians – healthcare workers and the most vulnerable elderly – have received at least one shot from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

He said by mid-March all those older than 60 who have registered for a vaccine would be inoculated.

He said: “By early April we could be close to 2 million vaccinated and if we can also use the Chinese vaccine, then the number of those vaccinated and those who have had COVID (and gained immunity) would exceed two million, that’s good.”

On Thursday, Mr Orban flagged that coronavirus restrictions could be eased in April after Easter.

Mr Gulyas told a press briefing that depending on progress with inoculations, some easing was plausible from March 1, with a second phase in early April.

The Czech Republic may also consider using vaccines not yet registered in the EU to speed up inoculations, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Friday, on a trip to Hungary.

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He said he had also spoken about the issue with German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he said wanted Russian or Chinese vaccines to be given European approval.

European Union countries’ governments are facing a reckoning over vaccination programmes that have lagged far behind the United States and former EU member Britain.

Mr Babis said: “I have spoken about the Russian vaccine, and about the Chinese vaccine, with Chancellor Merkel, and the chancellor as well as the Bavarian prime minister are unambiguously calling for this vaccine to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“Now, of course, the issue is whether the producer asks for the approval or not, and we, of course, want to consider, if we get hold of the vaccine, to go the similar way as Hungary did because time is of the essence.”

Prior to his trip to Budapest, he said he aimed to discuss Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine with Mr Orban.

Czech authorities had until Friday insisted on EMA clearance for any vaccine to be used in the country.

Peer-reviewed late-stage trial results of Sputnik V published in The Lancet international medical journal this week showed it was almost 92 percent effective in fighting COVID-19.

Russia has shared data from its Phase III trial with regulators in several countries and has begun the process of submitting it to the EMA for approval in the European Union.

China has produced two vaccines, from Sinopharm and Sinovac, and has been exporting millions of doses of each of them around the world, mainly to developing countries.

The Czech Republic has suffered one of the world’s highest infection and death rates, with 16,976 deaths in a population of 10.7 million.

It has so far administered 327,759 vaccine doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, mostly to citizens over the age of 80 and health workers, and received the first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines on Saturday.

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