As Hungary tries to combat a Covid death rate that ranks among the world’s 10 worst, efforts by the country’s medical authorities to increase immunization rates may have been hampered by allegations that the national drug regulator has speeded up the approval process for the Chinese and Russian shots.
Skepticism about vaccines in Hungary may have already hampered the country’s vaccination campaign, which has stymied progress in many other countries in the European Union, especially in Western Europe.
But this was not always the case. Hungary led the way for vaccinations in Europe early last year after buying Sputnik vaccine from Russia and Sinofarm vaccine from China. The country got both after Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, criticized the European Union’s slow start to its vaccination drive.
“Hungarians cannot die because vaccine procurement in Brussels is slow,” Orbán said in January 2021. “This is simply not acceptable.”
Hungary announced on Friday that it had received a shipment of the Russian-made Sputnik Lite vaccine, a one-shot vaccine, for testing.
But Mr Orban has also struggled to develop public health policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and his decision to engage in vaccines not approved by European Union medical regulators drew heavy criticism at home. Among those concerns, the speed with which Hungarian authorities approved the use of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, which has raised concerns about possible corruption, and doubts about the safety of the vaccines.
In Hungary, the authorities do not publish data about the vaccines given to people who died of Covid. Hospitals and health care workers are also prohibited from speaking to the media without prior government permission. Citizens face criminal penalties for spreading false or distorted information that the government says impedes its ability to deal with the public health crisis.
In February 2021, Dr. Gyula Kincsis, President of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, the drug regulator, called for the publication of documents related to the approval of the Sputnik and Sinopharma vaccines. He added that without the documents, the chamber could not in good conscience recommend doctors to perform the injections.
Orban’s deputy prime minister, Gergeli Golias, said in April 2021 that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine was among the best, “even better than Western vaccines,” and that “Sinopharma is better than Pfizer.”
In December, after months of litigation, the institute released revised documents about the approval process.
Akos Hadazi, the opposition MP, claimed to have circumvented the revisions. He said the revised sections showed that Hungarian experts reported being unable to thoroughly inspect vaccine production sites and laboratory processes and lacking information on “several important tests related to efficacy and safety.”
Mr. Hadazi has since filed a criminal complaint claiming that Hungarian medical authorities succumbed to political pressure and violated professional standards during the approval process for Russian and Chinese vaccines.
Dr Ferenc Vallos, a former Hungarian chief medical officer, said in an interview that the case illustrated how the government had “broken the backbone” of the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, allowing political interests to bypass appropriate medical operations.
He said Hungary’s high death rate could be attributed to a lack of political will to introduce strict public health measures, the “disastrous” health care situation that preceded the pandemic and misleading government communication about vaccines.