Et was a valuable commodity that was brought to Budapest by an inconspicuous cargo plane in mid-February: the Chinese corona vaccine from the manufacturer Sinopharm. The Hungarian government had specially sent the machine to China to pick it up. 550,000 vaccination doses were on board. They have been vaccinated against the Hungarians since the end of February.
In the past two weeks, the country has overtaken all other EU countries. A total of 1.1 million people have already received their first dose of vaccine, 14 percent of the population. This makes Hungary the European vaccination champion – only in the small state of Malta are proportionally more people immunized. With a vaccination rate of 9.4 percent, Germany ranks 16th in the EU.
Hungary left the European ordering process at the end of last year. The country ordered seven million vaccine doses in Moscow and Beijing – in addition to the 19 million ordered from the EU. The vaccines from Russia and China are currently being delivered faster than the European ones. Many European countries are currently considering ordering vaccines from outside the EU.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is now testing the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. Hungary acted earlier than anyone else. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also wanted to put political pressure on the EU, with which he has been at odds for years. But what many observers dismissed as a PR number is now turning out to be a successful vaccination strategy.
Just a few weeks ago it looked very different. Many Hungarians had doubts about the Chinese vaccine after it was approved in mid-February. They found the rapid approval by the Hungarian health authorities suspicious. Experts were also skeptical and accused China of a lack of transparency. Some doctors initially refused to inoculate the Sinopharm vaccine because the leaflet was not available in Hungarian.
“Can’t answer that Hungarians are dying because Brussels is too slow”
Since the beginning of the year, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been promoting the vaccine personally: “The Chinese have known the virus the longest, so I think they know the most about it,” he told the Kossuth radio station. At the same time, the head of government used the topic to criticize the EU: “You cannot answer for Hungarians dying just because Brussels is too slow,” he said in January. If the vaccines did not come from Europe, they would just have to be brought from somewhere else. At the end of February he had the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine injected. A video team documented the prime minister’s immunization for his Facebook page.
When the country started using Sinopharm two weeks ago, the pace of vaccination accelerated extremely. Within a few days, Hungary overtook all other larger EU countries. “We would be in a much more difficult position if we didn’t have the Chinese vaccine,” the health authority NNK said when asked.
The Hungarians’ skepticism subsided within a short time. “We are currently in the middle of the third wave, the hospitals are full and the death rate is at a record high,” said immunologist András Falus from Semmelweis University in Budapest to WELT. “This ensures that people accept any vaccine – no matter where it comes from.”
In fact, according to Johns Hopkins University, Hungary has the third highest death rate in the world, after Mexico and Peru. The number of cases in the country has grown exponentially over the past two weeks.
The journalist Ádám Bihari from the government-critical weekly newspaper “HVG” sees it similarly. Many people, especially opposition supporters, have always stated that they do not want the Chinese vaccine. They often only accepted vaccines that were also approved by the EMA. “But when they are called and given the choice of either getting a Sinopharm vaccination now or waiting a few more weeks, the situation changes,” says Bihari. Despite his initial skepticism, he himself would now be given the Sinopharm vaccine.
Yet another factor is decisive for the country’s success: Hungary has meanwhile thrown its vaccination sequence upside down. The first thing that doctors and clinicians should do is vaccinate. After that, the vaccination of those over 80 was originally planned, followed by those over 60. The fourth group should be under 60s with chronic illnesses before everyone else gets their injection. But in practice it didn’t work. Only the first group was fully vaccinated as planned. The rest of the groups now have their turn. “A lot of chaos broke out, but that should be one of the reasons why it just goes faster,” says András Falus.
The rapid immunization of the population is also facilitated by the simple infrastructure. Anyone wishing to be vaccinated can register with their details on a government website. These are then forwarded to hospitals and resident doctors, who inform their patients via text message or phone call when it is their turn. “It works pretty well and ensures that people get to their appointments quickly,” says journalist Bihari.
So far there has only been one incident. Last week, 75,000 people mistakenly received a text message telling them that they could get a vaccination with the AstraZeneca drug immediately. The announcement, which was probably sent due to a computer error, had to be withdrawn. But those who went to the doctor or the vaccination center anyway received their vaccination spontaneously.
Hungary could vaccinate even faster. Of all the cans delivered, only 56 percent were injected. 44 percent are still in the fridges. It remains to be seen whether this will succeed. But even with the current pace, the health authority is optimistic: By the beginning of April it expects 1.3 million additional first vaccinations – and by July with the vaccination of the entire population.