BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Doctors in Hungary began Wednesday to administer a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China, making the country the first European Union nation to use a Chinese jab as authorities seek to increase confidence in its safety and effectiveness.
General practitioners across the Central European country were instructed to administer the injections, developed by Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm, to elderly patients. Sinopharm jab brings the number of vaccines currently in use in Hungary to five, including Sputnik V developed in Russia, more than in any other country in the 27 EU countries.
But in order for the country’s expanded vaccine palette to be put to use, officials are trying to increase public confidence in vaccines produced in eastern countries.
“I ask that all fears about Chinese and Russian vaccines be dispelled, because more than 30 million people have received these vaccines without any particular problem,” said Hungary’s chief physician, Cecilia Muller, at a virtual press conference on Wednesday -market.
The Hungarian government has sharply criticized the speed of the EU’s vaccine procurement program and has sought to buy doses from countries like China and Russia, despite research showing that confidence in these vaccines is low among Hungarians.
A survey of 1,000 people in the capital Budapest by researcher Median and the 21 Research Center showed that among those who wish to be vaccinated, only 27% would get a Chinese vaccine and 43% a Russian vaccine, compared with 84% who would get a jab developed in western countries. The survey, carried out at the end of January, had a margin of error of about 3%.
Still, Hungarian authorities hope that the Sinopharm vaccine, which received final approval last week, will give a strong boost to the country’s vaccination rate: up to 368,000 people can be inoculated this week, compared with 471,000 who have received an injection since vaccinations started in December, state secretary Dr. Istvan Gyorgy said on Tuesday, adding that 275,000 people will receive the Sinopharm vaccine this week.
“All vaccines available in Hungary are safe and able to provide protection against infection with the virus. This is also true for oriental vaccines, despite all rumors to the contrary, ”said Gyorgy.
In Budapest, Dr. Zoltan Komaromi started administering the Sinopharm vaccine on Wednesday, despite his personal concerns about the size of the trial samples and what he perceived as pressure from senior government officials on Hungarian health officials to approve the vaccine.
“There is uncertainty because of politicians talking back and forth about vaccines,” he said. “It seemed very bad for ordinary people that the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister actually asked the authorities to give official approval.
Komaromi, who is also a health spokesman for a Hungarian opposition party, received 55 doses of the vaccine on Wednesday and sent emails to his patients informing them of all possible risks and side effects. Of the 120 patients he contacted, 22 said they would get the vaccine and 75 refused.
The Hungarian government has accused opposition parties of increasing distrust of their vaccination program, especially with regard to vaccines purchased outside the EU.
A steady decline in new coronavirus cases and deaths, which began in late December, reversed the course earlier this month, and the government emphasized that speeding up vaccinations is the only way to prevent an apparent “third wave” of the pandemic. Hungary’s acquisition efforts placed it first in the EU in the number of vaccine doses distributed to the country per 100 inhabitants, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency.
Hungary has agreed to buy 5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine in the next four months, enough to inoculate 2.5 million people with the two-round vaccine in the country of around 10 million. Successful administration of that amount will depend on the level of public confidence in Chinese and Russian vaccines, which Komaromi said has declined after they were approved in Hungary without being inspected by the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s drug regulator.
“Patients feel this, they know, they follow the news and unfortunately we (doctors) have to overcome their resentment one by one,” he said.
As of Wednesday, 550,000 doses of Sinopharm have been delivered so far, compared to 774,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and smaller vaccine shipments from Russia’s AstraZeneca, Moderna and Sputnik V.
In a public radio interview late last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he would personally choose to be vaccinated with the Sinopharm vaccine.
“I’m waiting for the Chinese vaccine, but I trust it a lot,” said Orban. “I think the Chinese have known this virus the longest and are probably the best.”
Hajnalka Miklos, a retiree who received her first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine on Wednesday, said she was relieved to be able to spend more time with her parents and grandchildren, and that she had no reservations about receiving the Chinese vaccine.
“I would have liked the Russian vaccine, or Pfizer, but it came, and I am very happy,” she said.