As Hungary tries to combat a Covid death rate that ranks among the top 10 worst in the world, efforts by the country’s medical authorities to increase immunization rates may have been hampered by claims that the national drug regulator rushed the approval process for Chinese and Russian shots.
Vaccine skepticism in Hungary may have already hampered the country’s inoculation campaign, which has lagged the progress made in several other countries in the European Union, particularly in Western Europe.
But that was not always the case. Hungary led the way for inoculations in Europe early last year after procuring the Sputnik shot from Russia and the Sinopharm vaccine from China. The country obtained both after Viktor Orban, the far-right prime minister of Hungary, criticized the European Union’s slow start to its immunization campaign.
“It cannot be that Hungarian people are dying because vaccine procurement in Brussels is slow,” Mr. Orban said in January 2021. “This is simply unacceptable,” he added.
On Friday, Hungary announced that it had received a shipment of the Russian-manufactured Sputnik Light, a one-shot vaccine, for testing.
But Mr. Orban has also struggled to develop public health policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and his decision to go all-in with vaccines not approved by E.U. medicine regulators has generated significant criticism at home. Among those concerns were the speed with which the Hungarian authorities approved usage of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, which prompted fears about potential corruption, and doubts about the safety of the shots.
In Hungary, the authorities do not publish data about which vaccines were given to people who have died of Covid. Hospitals and health care workers are also barred from speaking to the news media without prior authorization from the government. And citizens face criminal penalties for spreading false or distorted information that the government says hampers its ability to deal with the public health crisis.
In February 2021, Dr. Gyula Kincses, president of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, called on the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, the medicines regulator, to make public the documentation relating to the approval of the Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines. He added that, without the documentation, the chamber could not in good conscience recommend that doctors administer the shots.
Gergely Gulyas, a deputy to Prime Minister Orban, said in April 2021 that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine was among the best, “even better than the Western vaccines,” and that “Sinopharm is better than Pfizer.”
In December, after months of litigation, the institute released redacted documents about the approval process.
Akos Hadhazy, an opposition lawmaker, claimed to have circumvented the redactions. He said the redacted portions showed that Hungarian experts had reported being unable to thoroughly inspect vaccine production sites and laboratory processes and lacked information about “several important tests concerning efficacy and safety.”
Mr. Hadhazy has since filed a criminal complaint claiming that the Hungarian medical authorities had caved to political pressure and violated professional standards during the approval process for the Russian and Chinese vaccines.
Dr. Ferenc Falus, a Hungarian former chief medical officer, said in an interview that the case illustrated how the government “broke the spine” of the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, allowing political expediency to override the proper medical processes.
Hungary’s high death rate, he said, can be attributed to the lack of political will to introduce stringent public health measures, the “catastrophic” situation in health care that preceded the pandemic and the government’s misleading communication on vaccines.