Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Coronavirus-related restrictions cannot be eased as long as there is no significant drop in the number of new cases, minister says

Hungary must find own vaccine resources

The Hungarian government is "forced to find its own sources for a vaccine" as mass vaccination against Covid-19 has not yet started in the European Union due to "delays by the European Commission", the head of the Prime Minister's Office told his regular weekly press conference.

“The government is in talks with every potential supplier including China and Russia,” Gergely Gulyas said. He stressed that the government would only buy vaccines “that have been used to inoculate several million people” and that the Hungarian authorities deem “safe and effective”.

Gulyas slammed the European Medicine Agency for slow licencing, and said that Hungary’s authorities had already granted a licence to the AstraZeneca vaccine. “If the European authority followed suit, vaccination (in Hungary) could start,” he said. He also noted that a Russian vaccine had also been granted a temporary licence to be applied in Hungary, adding that Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was having talks on the subject in Moscow on Thursday.

Vaccine supplies to the EU are “clearly insufficient”, Gulyas said, noting that mass vaccination was already under way in Israel, the US, the UK and in several Arab countries.

Hungary cannot ease its coronavirus-related restrictions as long as there is no significant drop in the number of new cases, Gulyas said, but added that the spread of the virus was slowing down and the number of fatalities was also decreasing, contrary to a large part of the region where a third wave of the pandemic had hit.

Gulyas said that people to be inoculated would be asked which vaccine they preferred, but added that if the preferred product was not available the client would have to wait until it was purchased.

Gulyas called it “irresponsible” to “spread rumours about vaccines that could save lives”. He also said it was fake news that unused vaccines were dumped. “It could not happen and it would have serious consequences,” he said, adding that doctors must not disregard the official vaccination schedule.

Concerning Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, Gulyas said that “Russia seems to have resolved issues around a lack of production capacities” and will be able to produce the vaccine in large quantities. Concerning the Chinese vaccine, he said the government has signed a deal aimed at unlocking the “immediate supply” of one million doses, but added that licensing by Hungarian authorities is still pending.

Gulyas said patients would not be offered an opportunity to reserve dates for inoculation with their GPs, saying that “an appropriate schedule cannot be followed unless there is a central registry”.

Residents will be provided a plastic card certifying that they have been inoculated or they have recovered from Covid-19, starting probably in mid-February, Gulyas said, adding that once a sufficient number of people were vaccinated restrictions could be lifted.

Gulyas was asked about leftist criticism of the government pressuring the health authorities to licence the Russian and Chinese vaccines in Hungary, in light of the Austrian, Danish, and Greek governments calling on the European Medicine Agency to grant a licence to the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine. He said the government would not pressure any authority to disregard professional protocols. At the same time, the licencing process must be accelerated because “thousand are dying … people who would not die had they been inoculated”, he added.

Answering a question about whether Hungary would meet the European target of vaccinating 80 percent of people above the age of 80, as well as health and welfare employees, by March, and 70 percent of the adult population by the summer, Gulyas said that in light of delays in vaccine supplies from the EU, this could only be achieved if alternative sources of supply were involved.

Gulyas said that Pfizer could not be sanctioned for temporarily supplying smaller amounts of its vaccine under effective agreements.

Responding to another question, Gulyas said that no government member had so far been inoculated because “any deviation from the vaccination plan would only be possible by changing the rules”.

Asked about the suggestion by health experts that the Chinese vaccine should only be used if licenced by the EU, he said: “Hungary has its own authorities, and the government does not think that a licence by the European authority carries any greater credibility”.

On the subject of the Hungarian economy, Gulyas highlighted uncertainties caused by the pandemic, saying that the finance ministry “would be glad to see the optimistic scenario of 6 percent of GDP” in 2021. He noted that Hungary’s state debt exceeded 80 percent of GDP by the end of last year, as opposed to 65.5 percent in 2019, but added that it was still in the median range of EU members, the EU average being 94 percent.

Referring to the new United States administration, Gulyas said: “A new government should be given the benefit of the doubt, even if we have had bad experiences with certain people.” Hungary hopes the US will resolve its problems successfully, he said.

Concerning the revamp of Budapest’s landmark Chain Bridge — and the accusation against the administration of Gergely Karacsony that it was spending 5.5 billion forints (EUR 15.3m) more on the project than necessary — Gulyas said the government would stick to its promise to provide funding for renovation. At the same time, the city council, he added, had not only approved a more expensive bid but had simplified the plans, “so the relative cost increase is huge”.

Commenting on a tender for advertisement space on the city’s public transport network, he accused the city council of wasting money egregiously while repeatedly complaining about a shortage of funds. Gulyas said the council had lost 1.2 billion forints by refusing to approve a bid submitted as part of a lawfully completed tender.

Commenting on the planned regulations of social media giants, he said the justice ministry would soon submit a related proposal. Solutions are being sought both in the US and Europe for ways to keep the operation of international companies within a constitutional framework, he said. Free speech must be guaranteed, he said, but since it was impossible to hold tech giants accountable for failing to enforce constitutional guarantees in the current institutional framework, the situation needed to change, he added.

Gulyas also said that digital education will be maintained at universities from February.

Commenting on recent remarks by Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission for values and transparency, according to which Hungary would be punished by blocking funds if it fails to act in line with rule-of-law principles set out by the EC, Gulyas said Jourova was unfit for her job because she “hates Hungary and Poland” and was unable to form objective opinions. Jourova’s remarks violated her obligations as set out in the Lisbon Treaty, and the EC president had been asked to replace her, he added.

“A commissioner who has spent time in pre-trial detention in connection with corruption could be expected to show greater restraint,” he said.

Commenting on the planned transformation of various of the country’s science universities, he said the current regulations on medical training must be kept in force. Clinics will remain parts of universities and would also continue to provide standard hospital services, he added.

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