With the Economy on the Ropes, Hungary Goes All In on Mass Vaccination

Hungary on Friday began injecting citizens with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, becoming the first country in the European Union to administer a coronavirus inoculation that has yet to be tested and approved by the bloc’s regulators.

With Hungary’s economy suffering and a national election looming next year, embracing such vaccines is part of the government’s strategy to go all in on fighting the coronavirus after a series of missteps allowed it to spread in Hungary.

The decision by Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, to move forward with the ambitious vaccination plan comes after the European Union’s own response to vaccine distribution has lagged behind the United States, Israel, and Britain.

Mr. Orban has few options for reviving the Hungarian economy, as he is opposed to handing out meaningful relief aid to citizens and businesses and appears to be betting big on getting the whole country vaccinated, with an eye on next year’s elections.

“We have averted the extreme temptation of returning to an aid-based economy during the crisis,” Mr. Orban said last week at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Many have said that aid must be distributed during a crisis. Perhaps that may be appropriate in some countries under certain circumstances. I do not see Hungary as one of these countries.”

But his embrace of vaccines that have yet to get E.U. approval — Sputnik V, as well as a Chinese one made by Sinopharm that is expected to be rolled out in the near future — have also provided an opportunity to score political points against what Mr. Orban sees as an overbearing and ineffectual European Union in the run-up to the election in 2022.

“My opinion is that what I need, and what the Hungarian people need, is not an explanation, but a vaccine, and if it is not coming from Brussels, then it must come from elsewhere,” Mr. Orban said in January. “It cannot be that Hungarian people are dying because vaccine procurement in Brussels is slow. This is simply unacceptable.”

Mr. Orban has been at odds with the European Union over Hungary’s hard-line policies regarding the treatment of migrants, deemed illegal by the European Court of Justice, as well as issues like the rule of law, corruption and media freedom.

Critics argue that by moving forward with vaccines that have not been approved in the European Union, Mr. Orban is undermining the bloc’s joint vaccination program, which coordinates orders and distribution.

“Orban is using the vaccine to play a perfidious political game to weaken, break up the bloc,” said Andrzej Halicki, a Polish member of the European Parliament.

“Russia is deploying a dumping tactic, trying to enter the European market, offering the Hungarians a lower price for their vaccine, and Orban is trying to destroy the common vaccination strategy under the pretext of this lower price,” he said.

For now, the European Commission, the executive branch of the E.U., has avoided directly criticizing Mr. Orban’s approach.

“If a member state wants to conclude contracts with companies not covered by our vaccine strategy, they have a right to do that,” Stefan De Keersmaecker, a commission spokesman said Wednesday.

But, he said, Hungary would also be liable for using the unapproved vaccines. “This is different from the E.M.A. authorization, where liability remains with the manufacturer,” he said, referring to the European Medicines Agency, the E.U. regulator.

While many E.U. members have expressed frustration with the bloc’s sluggish procurement procedures, Hungary is the only one so far to break from the collective strategy.

Neither the Russian nor the Chinese producers have applied for a rolling review or a marketing authorization with the European Medicines Agency. But Russian scientists have sought formal scientific advice from the E.U. regulator, a step seen as a precursor to collecting the appropriate data and documentation to request a review.

Sputnik V only this month got its first peer-reviewed feedback in the scientific publication The Lancet, which indicated it was both safe and effective. The Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for use in China, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, but the company has yet to publish detailed results of its Phase 3 trial.

Other E.U. nations have began considering Sputnik V since it received its positive review in The Lancet, E.U. officials say, and that could help its authorization by the bloc. Despite his complaints about the delays in mobilizing vaccines by the European Union, which only became apparent in December, Mr. Orban’s strategy was already evident in November, when his foreign minister announced that the government was in talks with Russia about importing, and possibly manufacturing, Sputnik V.

Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a research institute in Budapest, said Mr. Orban was now motivated by a desire to appear quicker and more efficient than the European Union.

While there is a strong desire to get the economy up and running again, Mr. Kreko said, the prime minister is also working to repair the image caused by his administration’s bungled handling of the pandemic and Hungary’s high mortality figures.

Dr. Ferenc Falus, Hungary’s former chief medical officer, said the public health response has been deficient on several levels. From the beginning of the pandemic, he said, systemic problems with contact-tracing made it completely inefficient. A failure to offer free mass testing contributed to a skewed understanding of the prevalence of the virus, he said.

The relaxation of restrictions between August and November, Dr. Falus said, “was a huge mistake because it resulted in the incredibly high spike in mortality.”

Hungary has registered 383,735 cases of the coronavirus, with 13,543 deaths, according to a New York Times database, though experts believe the number of deaths related to the virus to be much higher.

While Mr. Orban and his government have played up the merits of the Russian and Chinese vaccines, many Hungarians are still wary of those shots, Mr. Kreko said.

He cited a recent survey by the Hungarian pollster Median that showed twice as many Hungarians would choose Western vaccines over Sputnik, and three times as many as Sinopharm.

He said waiting until these vaccines receive approval from the European Medicines Agency might expand the public’s openness toward using them.

“That would not fit into Orban’s strategy because he wants to show how Brussels is slow and incompetent while the Hungarian government is doing much better,” he said.

The Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, a leading association of doctors, has urged the government and domestic regulators to approve vaccines only after transparently following drug safety rules and testing in accordance with European Medicines Agency standards.

Like other countries in the European Union, Hungary’s economy was hammered by lockdowns after the coronavirus spread rapidly in the spring, with its service sector particularly hard hit.

“Roughly the same happened everywhere,” said Gergely Tardos, lead economist with OTP Bank. “Hungary was more or less lucky because industry bounced back in the third quarter — but that was not true for tourism, restaurants and a lot of services.”

Worst hit were those in the sector working off the books, as is typical in Hungary, particularly in small businesses and in hospitality and tourism.

Addressing the illegal and semi-illegal employment of such individuals is a political land mine, said Zoltan Pogatsa, an economist with the University of Sopron.

Hospitality and tourism account for roughly 10 percent of Hungary’s economy and labor force, he said, and those working informally would not be eligible for unemployment benefits, which are already low by E.U. standards and the shortest in the bloc.

Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.

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