Sputnik V has landed in Hungary. No, not a space mission, but Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine. On Friday a test sample of 10 vials was received with media fanfare at Budapest’s Franz Liszt airport.
Conversely Sputnik’s touch-down struck a discordant note with European regulators. Fidesz stands accused of tendentious use of emergency exemptions to circumvent the European Medicines Agency — whose permission is needed for imports of trial material. EMA approval is presently withheld pending Russia’s (delayed) supply of test-protocol data from its own, and partner, laboratories.
Is this move just a case of Budapest trolling Brussels again (especially given the framing of the Rule of Law controversy)? Maybe, but more likely the sample import, and talk of a mass vaccination starting January, is a desperate attempt to calm domestic anxieties. Hungary escaped the first wave of Covid lightly, recording springtime deaths below the 5-year average, but the second wave crashed hard through the Carpathian basin.
Infection and mortality rates in Hungary started climbing in September, then accelerated exponentially from mid-October. Of the country’s 175,098 recorded cases, 125,789 are presently active. On the 6th November daily deaths hit three figures for the first time. The weekly average is now just above that. Hungary is a small country of 9.7 million people: the UK per capita equivalent would be 600+. In the first week of November mortality jumped 57% in 7 days -a period which also witnessed 1/4 of all Hungary’s Covid-19 deaths up to that point.
On 3rd November PM Orbán acknowledged, in a video message uploaded to Facebook, that Hungary’s health system risked becoming overwhelmed by mid-December if the R-rate was not curtailed. Doctors’ groups are more pessimistic – citing late November as the likely saturation point.
This situation is acutely problematic for the Hungarian PM who on 4th September dismissed rising infection rates as a sign of trouble asserting “I measure success in the number of dead.”
Dr. Tamás Dénes, spokesman for medical Trade Union Reszasz has cautiously welcomed Sputnik’s arrival “It’s a good idea to have more options… [but] I hope that just because of politics the Hungarian government doesn’t choose the Russian Vaccine -that if they take it it will be safe” he told Budapest’s foreign journalists at a briefing on Friday.
Sceptical observers make unflattering comparisons with rushed PPE procurement this Spring. Then Hungary purchased equipment from China at up to 50 times the price paid by Germany — only to find much of it unusable.
The minute size of the sample delivered to Budapest also raises concerns. Without published data on the main trial, properly scaled replication testing would typically require 4,000 times the number of shots provided and take months, not weeks, to establish efficacy/safety.
But if Mr. Orbán really is taking a serious gamble on the Russian vaccine, then he shouldn’t forget that the risks will be carried by his own people.