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EU warns Hungary against use of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine

BRUSSELS: Hungary’s plans to import and possibly use Russia’s touted Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine raise safety concerns and could damage trust in potential shots, the European Commission said, opening a new front in the EU’s fraught relations with Budapest.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hard line against migration and what critics say is his increasingly authoritarian grip on power – an accusation he has repeatedly denied – as well as his pursuit of close relations with Russia have caused repeated clashes with the European Union.

A new showdown is expected on Thursday when EU leaders hold a video conference that may address the bloc’s massive COVID rescue plan and seven-year budget, which Hungary and Poland’s nationalist governments are blocking because they make access to money conditional on respecting the rule of law.

Hungarian plans to conduct trials of and possibly produce the Russian vaccine, an unprecedented step for an EU member state, add to existing frictions with Brussels.

Asked about these plans, a spokesman for the Commission, the EU’s executive, said: “The question arises whether a member state would want to administer to its citizens a vaccine that has not been reviewed by EMA.”

Under EU rules, Sputnik V must be authorised by the European Medicines Agency before it can be marketed in any state of the 27-nation bloc, EMA said.

“This is where the authorisation process and vaccine confidence meet. If our citizens start questioning the safety of a vaccine, should it not have gone through rigorous scientific assessment to prove its safety and efficacy, it will be much harder to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population,” the Commission spokesman added in an emailed statement.

A recent study of 8,000 people in the United States and Britain found that fewer people would “definitely” take a COVID-19 vaccine than the 55% of the population which scientists estimate is needed to provide so-called herd immunity.

Experts have said that misinformation and perceived weak safety checks on candidate vaccines play a central role in reducing confidence in their efficacy.

Orban’s government has said it plans to trial and licence Sputnik V, and this week would begin importing a small number of doses that could lead to larger imports and mass-production in Hungary next year if the shot proved safe and effective.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund said last week that interim trial results showed Sputnik V is 92% effective at protecting people from the COVID-19 respiratory disease, and the country is preparing for mass inoculations.

Vaccines being developed by U.S. firms Moderna and Pfizer- the latter in cooperation with Germany’s BioNTech – have showed slightly better results on a much larger sample of people exposed to the virus.

The Hungarian government did not respond to questions on whether it wanted to licence the Sputnik V vaccine at home or through the required EU process.

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