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Gov’t Slams EU Again for ‘Scandalously Slow’ Rollout of Covid Vaccines, Turns to China

Hungary Today 2021.01.15.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister slammed the European Union, blaming it for the continuation of the covid restrictions. Meanwhile, Hungary decided to strike a deal with China’s Sinopharm to buy its coronavirus vaccine. If approved, this would make Hungary the first country in the EU to accept a Chinese vaccine.

Hungary’s coronavirus-related restrictions cannot be lifted due to the European Commission’s “scandalously slow vaccine purchase procedures,” Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said on Thursday at a press conference held on a different subject.

“In the wake of Brussels’ pledges at the end of last year and at the beginning of 2021, it was expected that the EU would start vaccination with enormous speed, and restrictions in member countries could be eased,” Szijjártó said, but added that “it has not happened due to the EC’s fault.”

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The minister also insisted that vaccines developed using EU funds “are the slowest to reach only the EU,” adding that residents in Britain, the US, and Israel were being inoculated “at lightning speed.”

“This has created a scandalous situation, especially in light of the EC launching continuous attacks on countries, including us, trying to obtain vaccines from other sources,” Szijjártó said.

As the government finds the pace of vaccine rollout painfully slow, it also decided to pass a decree on Thursday to start procurements outside the EU’s centralized scheme.

The government is ready to provide the financial resources for the acquisition of additional vaccines and has commissioned Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to oversee the procedure, the government information center announced in a statement regarding the decision.

Hungary strikes deal with Chinese pharma 

On the same day, Gergely Gulyás, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, announced that the government has reached a deal with China’s Sinopharm to buy its coronavirus vaccine, receiving the first shipment of up to 1 million doses.

He said that supplies via the European Union were slow, with weekly amounts received below 100,000 doses, and insisted that at that speed, inoculating 3 million people would take about 30 weeks.

“The government wants to leave behind an era of restrictions sooner than that, but it requires securing supplies from elsewhere,” Gulyás said.

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If approved by Hungarian authorities, this would make Hungary the first country in the EU to accept a Chinese vaccine.

On Friday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that “We’re unable to move faster with inoculating people not because Hungarian healthcare is incapable of carrying out mass vaccinations rapidly, but because we have a shortage of vaccine supplies,” pointing out that the vaccination rate in the EU is below 1 percent “whereas post-Brexit Britain has already vaccinated some 4 percent of its population.”

Referring to a request by Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety, that member states should not negotiate separately with vaccine manufacturers, Orbán said that more than hundred Hungarians were dying every day. “A Greek commissioner shouldn’t tell me what to do,” he said.

He said it would be possible to get “our old lives back” long before the summer if the Chinese vaccine were approved.

EC under heavy fire

Although Hungary might be one of the sharpest critics of the EU’s procurement process, it has come under fire from other countries as well for their relatively slow vaccine rollout programs, compared with those in Israel, the US, and the UK.

But the Commission rejects the criticism, stating that the reason for the delay is in fact an issue of production capacity – manufacturers are being slow to produce the vaccines- while member states are slow to administer them. Meanwhile, countries such as the US and UK were able to gain a headstart by using emergency licensing that offers governments much fewer guarantees.

The EC also reminds everyone that all Member States agreed in June not to engage in separate talks with vaccine manufacturers, possibly outbidding each other. Thus, ensuring that vaccines are available across the EU equally and that the Member States would not be at a disadvantage to larger countries that can reserve larger quantities.

However, the European Commission only approved a contract with Pfizer/Biontech in November, while the US and Israel did it months earlier. On the other hand, it is also important to point out that Israel pays almost 50 percent more for the vaccines than the EU and even the US pays more for it than the EU does.

Hungary has placed orders for 19.7 million doses of western vaccines from various producers, including Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, and CureVac, but so far only Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines have been given approval by the European Medicines Agency.

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The first shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine arrived on Dec. 26,  and vaccination began, first focusing on healthcare workers, then elderly care home residents. The first doses from Moderna arrived on Wednesday.

So far, 129,860 vaccine doses have arrived to the EU, and 91,600 people have received their shots, but Hungary’s pace of mass vaccination is hindered by quite a few technical problems as well as widespread skepticism towards vaccination, further delaying to reach the 60% vaccination threshold required to reach herd immunity.

Featured photo by Tamás Kovács/MTI