Hungary to trial Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, minister says

First acceptance of jab within bloc would mark significant triumph for Kremlin

Andy Gregory
Thursday 12 November 2020 16:21 GMT
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban shake hands after a meeting in Budapest in 2019
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban shake hands after a meeting in Budapest in 2019 (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

Hungary is on track to become the first EU nation to trial Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, after authorities said they would receive samples of the jab by the end of next week.

Late-stage trials of the vaccine have not yet concluded, but Russia’s sovereign wealth fund published interim data on Wednesday suggesting it was 92 per cent effective — two days after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine announcement that dominated headlines and boosted global markets.

Hailing “good news for Hungary” as his country was plunged into a strict second lockdown, foreign affairs and trade minister Peter Szijjarto announced on national TV that Budapest would receive a sample of Sputnik V within a week-and-a-half for laboratory testing.

The two countries are in “advanced negotiations” over the sale of full doses, said Mr Szijjarto, who is self-isolating with coronavirus. 

Clinical trials and licensing are to begin in December and, depending on the results, Hungary will begin to procure the vaccine in larger quantities in mid-January, he told the nation on Wednesday evening.

The sale of Sputnik V to an EU nation would mark a significant triumph for the Kremlin, and is also indicative of Hungary’s growing bond with Russia, with prime minister Viktor Orban — a proponent of “illiberal democracy” — apparently keen to emulate president Vladimir Putin’s strongman tendencies.

The Kremlin drew a sharp response from scientists and potential recipients in August by granting the vaccine approval ahead of third phase trials, after testing it on several dozen subjects in non-blind trials.

Amid a backlash from frontline workers singled out as priority recipients for the jab, such as teachers and doctors, Vladimir Putin sought to assuage concerns by claiming his daughter had been among those to receive the vaccine.

But despite reticence from the EU and US to legitimise Russia’s vaccine, which is being developed by the Gamaleya Institute, a host of countries around the world have signalled their interest, including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Similar to the Pfizer announcement, the interim results of phase three trials of 16,000 people, published on Wednesday, have not yet been peer-reviewed, but the BBC reports the Russian researchers as saying their data would be published “in one of the leading international peer-reviewed medical journals”.

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, welcomed the interim results as “yet more good news for Covid-19 vaccine development”.

“Although based on fewer cases than the recent Pfizer data, the vaccine looks as efficient and, like the Pfizer data, confirms and extends the earlier phase-two results,” Prof Jones said.

“We still need to know about the longevity of the response and the efficiency in different age groups, but the result bodes well for the other trials currently in progress and for having enough vaccine in geographically diverse regions.”

Based on an existing Ebola vaccine, Sputnik V is designed to trigger a response from two shots administered 21 days apart, each based on different viral vectors that normally cause the common cold. 

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