Due to the surge of new variants in Hungary, Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller is urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Meanwhile, in order to keep up with the new infections, the government, with the advice of the Task Force has decided to delay the interval between the first and second doses of Pfizer/BioNtech and AstraZeneca vaccines.
According to a circular signed by Cecília Müller which was received by GPs, the new decision significantly modifies the protocol for the administration of vaccines manufactured by Pfizer/BioNtech and AstraZeneca.
From March onwards, the second jab of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine will be given 35 days after the first vaccination, instead of the former three weeks. Furthermore, the second dose of AstraZeneca will be given 12 weeks after the first vaccination, instead of four weeks.
The change in strategy indicates that the government is preparing for a drastic deterioration in the epidemic situation, as they give up focusing on quick full protection from the virus via complete vaccinations and prioritize mitigating the symptoms and saving lives instead.
So far in Hungary, 685,247 people have received their first jab, and 251,691 have been fully inoculated.
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Ágnes Galgóczi, department head at the National Public Health Center (NNK), said that the vaccination strategy so far had been to adhere to the time interval between the first and second vaccinations in all cases. From now on, they will try to give the first vaccination to as many people as possible, as it already provides basic protection against the infection. They are confident that the first injection will provide protection that will prevent the infection from spreading.
Hungary followed the example of the United Kingdom when ut comes to postponing the vaccine shots. The UK decided in late December to give the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine 12 weeks after the initial dose. The goal was to stretch vaccine supplies to cover as many people as possible. Initially the decision drew criticism, but now some new data seems to justify the decision to delay. Developers from the University of Oxford suggest even longer stretches are possible, saying their shot performs better when its doses are spaced 12 weeks apart.
In addition, Germany considered delaying the administration of the second dose of vaccine by studying the British example, while Denmark decided to extend the interval between the administration of the two vaccines to six weeks.
It is worth mentioning that postponing the second dose doesn’t mean canceling it. It’s just a delay that could allow for more widespread distribution of the vaccine, especially to people at high risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. However, in terms of the Pfizer vaccine, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) warned that a maximum of 42 days between vaccinations should be adhered to for complete protection. Hungary amended the rules of vaccination to 35 days for the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccines, whereas for the AstraZeneca vacvine the country is still following the maximum of 12 weeks approved by the company.
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However, the question arises whether there are any disadvantages of changing the vaccination strategy?
Data does overall suggest the first doses function pretty well, however experts still don’t know the durability of that protection. In countries where the population is vaccinated at a slow pace, after about 10 months of vaccination, the first people who received the jab could become vulnerable again. In order to prevent this scenario, the role of the second dose is unquestionable.
Moreover, there is another big worry when it comes to postponing the interval between vaccines. Some people will still get ill after receiving their first vaccination. The jabs do not provide maximum protection and some new variants of the coronavirus can evade antibodies generated by the jabs. Researchers are concerned that delaying a second dose could help produce new variants.
Another great risk is not reserving the second vaccines (which was the protocol up until this change) makes the country extremely dependent on the new vaccine supplies. The Orbán government has repeatedly criticized the EU for the slow roll-out of the Pfizer/BioNtech and AstraZeneca vaccines which are now affected by the changes in protocol. So from now on it is essential for the vaccines to be delivered in time, otherwise a delay could significantly reduce their effectiveness. However, it is also possible that the government is aware of a possibly quicker EU vaccine roll-out, hence the risk may be small.
Featured photo illustration by Péter Komka/MTI