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In recent days, the vaccination pace has significantly decreased in Hungary, because most of the people are waiting for the vaccine of their choice. Most Hungarians would rather be vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna, while there are hundreds of thousands of other vaccines in stock. Millions more vaccinations are needed to achieve herd immunity, however many people, when they have the chance to pick and choose the jab they want, would rather go with “Western” vaccinations, except for AstraZeneca. In light of this news, the government might need to reevaluate its vaccination strategy this upcoming month. However, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine expected to arrive in huge quantities, maybe everyone can have the vaccine of their choice in a few weeks.

The Orbán government decided to tie the easing of restrictions to the number of vaccinations administered. Accordingly, after 3.5 million, terraces could reopen, after 4 million, people could use indoor services with vaccinatio certificates, and as the government promised, the country could fully reopen after about 6-7 million vaccinations by the end of May. The next goal is to reach 5 million vaccinated, with more easing promised to take effect afterwards.

On the 1st of May, the Prime Minister declared that they have the vaccines and are able to inoculate everyone- success only depends on whether people register and ask for the jabs. If this is indeed the case, it means that there are far fewer people to be vaccinated than originally expected. Chief Medical Officer, Cecília Müller, admitted on Monday that vaccinations have been slower over the past week, but as she said, they are gaining new momentum this week.

Since April 30th (when Hungary reached 4 million), a total of 370,000 people got their first jab. Originally according to the vaccination strategy, this number should have been an additional 1 million, so that Hungary could reach 5 million vaccinations in 7-10 days. Furthermore, the plan said that 6 million would be reached in mid-May and 7 million by the end of May. However, in order to achieve these numbers, the number of vaccinations per day should be increased to 400-500,000, otherwise the government would have to reevaluate its vaccination strategy. In other words: it is impossible to reach this target.

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According to the calculations of Válasz Online, the number of first-dose vaccinations in the past week has shown a 52 percent decrease compared to the numbers two weeks ago. While during the last week of April, 470,000 vaccinations were administered, one week later this number has fallen to 224,000.

What might be the cause of the decrease in vaccination pace?

In Hungary, “Eastern” vaccines and AstraZeneca were accepted by the population especially during the severe periods of the pandemic; at least there was a portion of the younger generations who took advantage of the opportunity. However, this has changed: February was the last time when Hungary administered as few vaccines as in the past week, with a total of 224,000. Meanwhile, the administration of second-dose vaccines is going on at a very good pace, with 472,000 inoculations.

Therefore, the problem is not within the healthcare system or the number of vaccines available, but rather with the fact that people are less willing to vaccinate themselves. In Hungary, the proportion of vaccine skeptics (or people who do not believe that they need to protect themselves from the virus by vaccination) is very large. The younger someone is, the bigger chance that he or she does not want a vaccination. According to a survey, young adults’ willingness to vaccinate is half that of the elderly, and while this indicator has improved in those over 40, it has even worsened in younger age groups.

This week, another shipment of 330,000 Pfizer vaccines arrived in Hungary, totaling 3.2 million altogether. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines which are in stock but are harder to “sell.” (The last shipment of Sputnik arrived last week and this type of vaccine is expected to run out soon, however, with the bigger Pfizer delivieries, the demand for Sputnik has also decreased in Hungary). The government decided a few weeks ago that appointments can be requested online and those who accept AstraZeneca, the Chinese and Russian vaccines, will be vaccinated immediately.

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This week, the registration of youngsters aged 16 to 18 years old has ended, with Pfizer vaccines primarily prioritized to this age group. However, as only around 40 percent of them registered, the government sent out text messages to those adults who registered for vaccinations before March but have yet to be inoculated, so now they can request appointments for Pfizer as well.  It was a reasonable step, since they have likely been waiting for Pfizer or Moderna, as they could have gotten Sputnik, Sinopharm, or AstraZeneca anytime in the past few weeks.

Moreover, after the older generations, the younger ones now need to be persuaded to protect themselves, and this group is much harder to convince. For them, the reaction to vaccination is mostly associated with more discomfort than the infection itself. This age group needs to be vaccinated mainly for the protection of others and the freedom that can be regained through vaccination certificates. Currently, around 30 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are vaccinated. Despite the fact that vaccines are available to the general population, many are still hesitant to accept it, as the option of choosing which one they want seems more appealing.

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What is the situation in Europe?

The current lack of willingness to vaccinate is not an unprecedented situation in Europe either: 78 percent of delivered vaccines were administered in Hungary, which is better than that in Sweden (72 percent), and far more favorable than in Bulgaria (45 percent), as is the case compared to many former socialist countries. For example, in the case of non-EU Serbs, so few want to vaccinate themselves that the country is giving away vaccines to foreigners for free, because otherwise they would be spoiled.

While vaccination in Hungary has slowed down presumably because people are waiting for the Pfizer vaccines, Western Europeans increased the rate precisely because of the mRNA vaccine in the 17th calendar week. At that time, the EU received as many Pfizer vaccines as in previous weeks from all vaccines combined. 33 million doses were administered, and therefore the proportion of those who received their first dose in the EU has risen to over 30 percent.

However, most European countries chose a different strategy from Hungary in vaccinating their populations. They started from the oldest people and are gradually decreasing the age limit to the younger generations. They also give priority to more vulnerable younger people, however due to this strategy, in most EU countries the younger generation has not been given a vaccine at all. As opposed to this plan, Hungary is vaccinating everyone who is willing to request a jab. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), even though Hungary has successfully vaccinated 80 percent of people between the ages of 70 and 80, and 70 percent of people over the age 80, this puts the country only in the middle, as in some countries this rate is higher.

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In Hungary, the proportion of those receiving the first dose by week 17 increased by 0.8 percentage points, while the EU average was 1.2. All of this is important because vaccination is both an individual and a community responsibility: even if we get the most effective vaccine, it doesn’t offer one hundred percent protection. Efficacy can be improved by achieving herd immunity- if everyone around us is vaccinated, we are much less likely to encounter the virus. This is why the European Union is planning to achieve 80 percent protection among the oldest members and 70 percent among the rest of its population. In Hungary, the pace has already significantly slowed down at around 4.5 million vaccinations, less than half of the total population.

Government announces that vaccination plan is likely to change 

Gergely Gulyás, head of the PM’s Office, announced that the vaccination rate is not yet high enough to accelerate the easing of restrictions.

There are plenty of vaccines available, so if we look at this, there could be as many as 5 million tomorrow, however, it is now the turn of those who pick and choose from the vaccines. Therefore, we estimate that in about two weeks we can move to 5 million – that is, there will definitely be a change in May, probably around the end of May,”

the minister said in an interview, adding that there are currently 4,420,767 people who have received their first dose.

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He also revealed that the government is set to discuss the decision next Wednesday as to what will happen as soon as Hungary reaches the 5 million vaccination mark. According to Gulyás, the regulations related to events can be changed in the future and they will consider giving access to different activities for those who have vaccination certificates.

Featured photo by Tibor Rosta/MTI