Hungary became the first European Union nation to approve Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine as Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes a pre-election risk to accelerate the country’s exit from the coronavirus crisis.
Hungary’s drug regulator granted emergency approval for Russia’s Sputnik V, the agency’s director, Matyas Szentivanyi, told state television late Wednesday. The decision followed pressure by Orban to fast-track it and skirt the EU, which has yet to authorize the vaccine.
While Orban is regularly criticized in the EU for his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, he may only be the first rather than the sole western leader to secure alternative supplies from the east amid the slow roll-out of western vaccines that have left governments exasperated. The government in Budapest is also considering procuring a Chinese vaccine from Sinopharm.
Like many of its EU peers, Hungary has faced public skepticism of the vaccines and so far has administered them for only a little more than 1% of its population amid a trickle of doses from Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc.
The government has warned that without a ramp-up, curbs like an evening curfew and the closure of some businesses could be in effect through the summer.
Orban is also under the gun before 2022 parliamentary elections, which are expected to be the closest in years after the opposition united against the four-term leader. He has pledged to protect the living standards of Hungarians, a tall order after his cabinet projected a 6.4% economic decline for 2020.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto will be in Moscow on Friday where he may agree to a large purchase of the Russian vaccine. Despite the emergency approval — which is for six months and an option to extend that for another six — Hungary’s health authority is still reviewing the Russian version in tests, and mass inoculations may happen only after its sign-off, state television reported.
Hungary is also ready to purchase more than a million doses from Sinopharm within days of regulatory approval, Orban told state radio on January 15.
The willingness to go ahead with eastern procurements follows Orban’s ideological shift from once being a staunch supporter western values to a leader who has vowed to eradicate liberal democracy, cultivated ties with strongmen and frequently clashed with the EU over his decade-old consolidation of power.
Orban has sought to follow the warming of political ties with business deals, including a Russia-backed $15 billion expansion of Hungary’s sole nuclear plant and a $2 billion rail link between Budapest and Belgrade, part of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Both contracts are at least partly classified.
Extending the deal-making to vaccines the EU hasn’t yet approved isn’t without risks. Chinese and Russian developers have been slow compared with their western peers in releasing clinical trial data, raising questions over transparency, efficacy and safety.
Getting Hungarians to trust vaccines is also a challenge after Orban, an early supporter of Russia’s Sputnik, said people wouldn’t be told which doses they’d be getting. He has since said people would be informed.
Hungarians are still generally skeptical of Covid-19 vaccines, with 27% responding “Yes” to a question on whether they would get the jab if it became available, compared with 29% who said “No,” according to a survey by the state statistics office published on January 14. That compared with 15% in favor of the vaccine and 36% against a month earlier.