Family doctor Csaba Denes holds a box of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, in Budapest, on 26 February 2021. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Globe Media/Reuters.

Prime Minister Orban’s headlong rush to approve and inoculate Hungarians with vaccines from Russia and China is in danger of backfiring. From BIRN. 

With the summer season approaching, concerns are growing in Hungary over free movement in Europe being restricted for some. And Hungarians might not be among the lucky ones.

The headache has to do with Hungary’s unique vaccination strategy in the EU. Besides the vaccines licensed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Janssen – Hungary’s regulator also granted emergency approval to both China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines in February.

Facing an unprecedented healthcare crisis in the third wave of the novel coronavirus, featuring skyrocketing death rates now totalling 30,000, the highest in the world per capita, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government ordered massive doses of eastern vaccines and rushed to inoculate citizens.

In contrast to many Western countries, where vaccination campaigns rolled out sluggishly, mainly due to supply shortages, Hungary had completed the inoculation of almost all those registered by mid-May, including even those in their twenties. The country now has almost 5 million people – half of the population – vaccinated and ranks only after Malta in the EU in terms of jabs per citizen. The gradual easing of restrictions is underway and all those vaccinated have duly received a “vaccination certificate,” which allows them to visit hotels, restaurants, gyms or swimming pools.

So far so good. But the story has its downside. Hungarians vaccinated with Sinopharm or Sputnik V – at least a million or more (including this correspondent) – could have a hard time crossing borders this summer as the EU sticks to only accepting vaccines approved by the EMA.

Green Certificates

At the end of April, the European Parliament passed a draft law on Digital Green Certificates that would facilitate safe travel within the EU for all those vaccinated with any of the vaccines licensed by the EMA, prompting anger in Hungarian circles.

“A vaccine does not have an ideology, only efficacy,” Balasz Hidveghi, an MEP from Orban’s Fidesz party, protested during the parliamentary debate. Europe is not in a position to choose between jabs for EU citizens, he argued, and should accept every vaccine which protects against the virus.

Another Hungarian MEP from the Hungarian opposition party Renew and a staunch critic of Orban’s government, Anna Donath, also called the draft unacceptable, as it would restrict the rights of more than a million Hungarians. “Do not punish the citizens for Orban’s sins,” she pleaded.

The draft law leaves open a door for member states to allow in tourists with unapproved vaccines, if they wish to do so. The European Commission and the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU hope to have introduced the Digital Green Certificate by the end of June, but a final agreement needs to be reached with the European Parliament and national governments.

In order to save the summer season for many Hungarians, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has had to embark on a tour of international capitals to sign as many bilateral agreements as possible to keep the borders open for Hungarian citizens.

One of the first agreements he signed was with Bahrain, not exactly a top travel destination for the average Hungarian. But Slovenia and Croatia have already indicated they would welcome any Hungarian who is vaccinated, and Greece is also opening up for tourists with either eastern or western jabs. Outside the EU, candidate countries North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey are doing likewise, along with Mongolia and Georgia.

Hungary’s Central European neighbours, however, are proving a tougher nut to crack. Szijjarto has so far only been able to convince his Czech peer Jakub Kulhanek to accede. Poland and Slovakia are sticking to the EU stance, as is Germany, Hungary’s main trading partner. Remarkably, Austria has recently decided to give the green light to those inoculated with Sinopharm – after it received a permit from the World Health Organization – but Vienna is maintaining its reservations over Russia’s Sputnik.

Zsolt Semjen, Hungary’s deputy prime minister from the Christian-Democrat People’s Party, went as far as saying that if a country does not accept all vaccines taken by Hungarians, then Hungary would not unilaterally recognise vaccines given in that country, because “this would be a renunciation of sovereignty.”

Goodwill Hunting

Even so, the verbal escalations do not change the fact that, at least for the time being, Hungarians will most probably need a negative PCR test every time they go abroad, which would not necessarily impede travel, but certainly make it more expensive and inconvenient.

“I hope things will clear up before July when I am invited to a musical festival in Austria,” Katalin Schneider, a Hungarian musician inoculated with Sputnik V, tells BIRN, adding she is confident the Foreign Ministry will ultimately solve the problem.

Those who got the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines feel luckier, but as Hungary’s vaccination certificate does not carry any reference to the specific jab, they might also face difficulties. Some, especially the younger generation who got Sputnik V, feel they should have been more patient and waited for a Western jab, though others point out that when you see friends and family falling seriously ill and even dying, you do not weigh the political arguments but accept the vaccine on offer.

“When your best friend, a healthy guy who is barely 45, dies in a matter of days, you radically change your approach to vaccination,” a young man who gave his name as Mate tells BIRN.

Hungary is currently the only EU country using non-Western vaccines, thus the only one relying on the goodwill of the others when it comes to free movement. But goodwill for Hungary’s government is in short supply in Europe, especially after the aggressive campaign waged by Orban against Brussels for “messing up the procurement of vaccines.”

Time is not on the prime minister’s side. As the Hungarian media have pointed out, inoculation campaigns are ratcheting up in most EU countries, with supplies pouring in, and demand for eastern vaccines is declining as a result. Orban may have felt like a winner in April, but his day in the sun may be over before summer even kicks in.

This article written by Edit Inotai was initially published by BIRN. Reprinted with permission.