Hungary approves Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine

Financial Times, 21.01.2021

Country is first EU state to break ranks and give unilateral emergency approval for Covid jab

Hungary has become the first EU country to grant approval to the Russian state-developed Covid-19 vaccine, the first time a member state has broken ranks to give unilateral emergency approval for a jab. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff confirmed that the government had approved both the Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik V, and the AstraZeneca jab, while criticising slow procurement through the EU programme. 

“If vaccine shipments arrive at this rate from Brussels, we can only get vaccines from other, alternative sources,” Gergely Gulyas told a news conference on Thursday.

The Hungarian approval comes as the EU this week criticised Moscow over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on his return to Russia from Germany, following his recovery from a nerve agent attack blamed on the Kremlin.

Budapest’s move to acquire the Russian vaccine will increase pressure on the EU’s joint coronavirus strategy. Under EU law, member states can “temporarily authorise the distribution of an unauthorised medicinal product” in response to a pandemic.

But the European Commission has previously warned Hungary that it would risk undermining public confidence in coronavirus immunisation should it bypass the EU medicines regulator and roll out Sputnik V. Brussels points out that any member state distributing a medicine under the emergency clause carries full liability in case of problems such as severe side effects. 

Budapest also reiterated on Thursday its intention to procure up to 1m doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine. Mr Orban last week said the Chinese and Russians were “vaccinating their own peoples in the tens of millions”, proving that both jabs were safe to use.

With a population of 9.8m, Hungary’s Covid-19 death toll stands at 11,700, with most of the deaths occurring in the second wave of the pandemic, which hit central Europe harder than the first. The government registered 1,400 new cases on Thursday, down from high rates of more than 6,000 new infections per day in early December.

Moscow this week said it had distributed 2m vaccines nationwide but regional doctors suggest that the true number of vaccinated people is much lower.

Any deal to procure mass supplies of Sputnik V is likely to be discussed by Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto during his visit to Moscow on Friday.