As soon as Hungary’s acquisition of 2 million doses of Russian-manufactured Sputnik V vaccines was announced, the country’s opposition media raced to question its effectiveness, people’s trust in the Russian product, and the approval process itself. Although the health regulator responsible for the decision had protested the politicization of a strictly medical and professional decision, attacks on the Orbán government’s acquisition of a product outside of the EU mechanism had continued to attract criticism despite other countries like Germany showing interest in the Russian vaccine as well.
The largest Hungarian financial periodical, HVG, known for its anti-government sentiments, had published an opinion by health-policy expert Gabriella Lantos, claiming that the Hungarian National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition’s (OGYEI) emergency licensing process, which had shortened the approval process down to two months, had made a politically-motivated decision. She claimed that even though the European Medicines Agency (EMA) itself had also shortened the usual 210-day approval period, it is impossible that OGYEI should allow a medicine for nation-wide distribution within two months. She had also called the approval of the Oxford-developed AstraZeneca vaccine within such a short period a sign of “showing-off”, and had pointed out that the EMA is only planning to approve it on Jan. 29.
The “rushed pace of the approval process will hurt the reputation of both OGYEI, as well as that of the vaccine itself,” she claimed.
Another anti-government news portal had gone as far as claiming that the new Russian vaccine will not be subject to Hungarian clinical tests at all. The news portal did admit though that a Hungarian team of medical scientists will make a decision based on the Russian results of the vaccine’s tests, for which they have travelled to Russia to confirm. To support their allusion to a deficient approval process, the authors of the article have pointed out that one report from the so-called phase three trial was missing, although this has later been supplied by the Russian health authorities and that there were some quality concerns, which were also later positively remedied by the manufacturers.
The article had also pointed to the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine will be licensed in Hungary based only on the results of British trials. Only in the last sentence did the portal finally admit that the Russian vaccine will in fact have to pass Hungarian trials performed at the laboratories of the National Citizen’s Health Center’s (NNK), without which no medicine can enter into circulation in the country.
Another economic news portal quoted the results of their own polls, according to which fewer people trust the Russian vaccine than those manufactured in the West. According to the poll, 15 percent of Hungarians surveyed said they were willing to be vaccinated by the Russian vaccine, while the AstraZeneca variant, which has equally been licensed based partly on British medical trials, received 41.1 percent. Of those surveyed, 94.7 percent said they would accept a vaccination from the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine. However, the Hungarian government is aware of varying vaccine preference in the population and had already announced their plans to allow their citizens to be vaccinated based on the variant they prefer as long as it is available.
Stefan De Keersmaecker, European Commission health spokesperson, has in a statement spoken against individual EU countries approving the AstraZeneca vaccine prior to EMA’s licensing decision. He also warned that member states will be responsible for any issues with vaccines that have been licensed outside the European mechanism. On the other hand, he has not specified who will be held responsible for the EU’s failures to pre-order the vaccines and the significant delays in the manufacturing process that had resulted in EU member-states falling well behind other developed nations in protecting their citizens’ health and their economies against the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mátyás Szentiványi, the director of the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition (OGYEI), had emphasized that the decisive factor is not where the vaccines are coming from but what their effect is. He had reassured citizens that the licensing process has been rigorous and that there are internationally renowned Hungarian doctors involved in the approval process. He had also reiterated that the OGYEI is an independent professional institution. Despite this, Szentiványi said that “especially with regards to the Russian vaccine, it has come into the crosshairs of politics, even though there is only scientific work performed at the institution. Those who claim the contrary, are not speaking the truth”.
On Jan. 22, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had announced the construction of a Hungarian vaccine manufacturing facility in the town of Debrecen.
“No serious country can afford to go scrounging for vaccines during such an epidemic… The government had ordered the building of a vaccine factory in Debrecen that is going to be large enough to produce sufficient quantities of vaccines when our scientists have succeeded in developing one.” In Orbán’s view, “if the vaccine does not come from Brussels, then it’s got to come from elsewhere… It is not excuses but vaccines that Hungarians need,” added Orbán.