Hungary has said it will receive a sample of the Russian-made Covid-19 vaccine within a week and a half, making it the first EU member state to announce plans to procure the Kremlin-backed jab.
Speaking from quarantine via video link after getting infected with Covid-19, Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs and trade, said on Wednesday evening his country was in “advanced negotiations” to acquire full doses from Moscow. “This is good news for Hungary,” he said.
An acquisition by Budapest and entry into the EU market would represent a major victory for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has been criticised by some experts for its rapid pace of approval and limited publicly available information on its efficacy.
Talks over the vaccine are the latest in a series of moves that analysts say prove Budapest is cosying up to Moscow, including hosting the headquarters of the International Investment Bank, a former Soviet state lender that had ties to the security services.
Hungary has also been criticised by western allies for stymying closer Nato-Ukraine relations, refusing to extradite Russian arms dealers to the US and increasing the country’s dependence on Russian energy imports.
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is funding the development of the vaccine, said on Wednesday that interim studies showed it was 92 per cent effective. However, the sample testing size was much smaller than tests for a vaccine developed by German start-up BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer that the companies said on Monday was more than 90 per cent effective.
Speaking on national television, Mr Szijjarto said the first sample would arrive in Hungary within a week and a half for laboratory testing and that clinical trials would begin in December.
If deemed effective, larger shipments could begin from the second half of January, he said. The minister said he was also in talks with a Hungarian pharmaceutical company to see if it would be able to produce the vaccine.
The vaccine was named Sputnik V in a nod to the Soviet satellite that sparked the cold war-era space race. The Kremlin has been pushing hard for the development of the Russian vaccine in a bid to keep pace with western immunisations also being developed.
The vaccine, developed by a state-run institute that has previously produced vaccines against Ebola, has so far received interest from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, India and former Soviet republics with close ties to Moscow.
Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that is bankrolling its development, told the Financial Times earlier this year that “political reasons” were hampering talks with EU states over the vaccine.
Mr Szijjarto said Hungary was working to obtain vaccines “from as many sources as possible”. Last week, he said the government was also in talks with Israel about procuring the vaccine being developed there, and noted that it could be possible to buy the vaccine developed in China “within weeks or a few months.”
The announcement came the same evening Hungary imposed a lockdown stricter than during the first phase of the pandemic in spring, with a full ban on movement between 8pm and 5am. Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday also approved a new state of emergency for 90 days granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban increased powers.
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