Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said his country may start inoculating people with the Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 next week, while the European Union’s top diplomat expressed hope that the bloc would grant regulatory approval for the Russian-made vaccine.
In comments made on February 5 during his weekly radio address, Orban said that health authorities were performing the final tests on the vaccine in preparation for its usage following Hungary's approval of the antiviral drug for emergency use.
Hungary would be the first European Union country to administer the vaccine that Russia registered in August last year, before the start of large-scale clinical trials or data, raising many questions over the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
However, peer-reviewed late-stage trial results published in The Lancet international medical journal this week showed the two-dose regimen of Sputnik V was 91.6 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19.
EU countries have been relying almost entirely on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so far, but Hungary's health authorities gave preliminary approval to Sputnik V for use last month.
As the delivery of Western-made vaccines has stalled in EU countries, interest in Sputnik V has risen.
During a visit to Moscow on February 5, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he hoped the European Medicines Agency (EMA) would approve the drug for use in the EU.
"As you know, we are facing a shortage of vaccines" and another source would be welcome, the senior EU official said during a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Germany has indicated that it would consider using Sputnik V if it were approved by the EMA, and is reportedly in discussions with Russia regarding the possibility of producing the vaccine in Germany.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis traveled to Budapest on February 5 to consult with Orban about Hungary's experiences with its purchase of Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccines.
"Vaccines are not a political question, but one of safety," said Babis, whose country would be the second in the EU to seek a COVID-19 vaccine outside the bloc's common procurement program.
“We need a safe vaccine and we need it now.... I do all I can to get as many vaccines as possible, if they’re safe,” he said.
Under a deal signed in January, Russia will send 2 million vaccine doses to Hungary in the coming three months, enough to inoculate 1 million people. The first 40,000 doses were delivered last week.
So far 264,530 Hungarians -- health-care workers and the most-vulnerable elderly -- have received at least one shot from the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, Orban said.
He told state radio that those older than 60 who have registered for a vaccine would be inoculated by mid-March.
"By early April we could be close to 2 million vaccinated and if we can also use the Chinese vaccine, then the number of those vaccinated and those who have had COVID (and gained immunity) would exceed...2 million, that's good," Orban said.
Hungary has also granted emergency-use approval to China's Sinopharm, rather than waiting for the EMA to give the go-ahead.
Orban has said the only way Hungary can satisfy the demand for vaccination, given the "frustratingly" slow delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, is by buying from Russia and China.