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Jan 14, 2021 - Zoltán Kovács

Is Brussels failing the COVID vaccine challenge?

While the United States has already vaccinated more than 10 million citizens, and the UK is now well beyond 3 million, some critics say that EU member states are lagging behind in terms of administering the lifesaving jab. So, what’s really happening? Has the EU reserved enough vaccines? Did they arrive late to the party? Why does the supply seem so unreliable? These are just a few of the tough questions for Brussels.

With the coronavirus pandemic still wreaking havoc across the continent, the question of approving and rolling out COVID-19 vaccines has never been so important. The solution, it would seem, is now at our fingertips, so the only step left to take would be to execute mass vaccination programs and the whole coronavirus nightmare could be behind us. Would that it were so simple!

In some parts of the world, particularly in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada (not to mention the Israeli vaccination miracle), the COVID-19 playbook is moving the ball forward, perhaps not flawlessly but moving. Keep in mind that most of these countries secured deals with vaccine producers as early as last July, while Brussels did so only in November. Similarly, as medical authorities in the U.S. and UK approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the first half of December (December 11 and December 2, respectively) and licensed a second type of vaccine produced by Moderna a week later, it took the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s body in charge of the evaluation and supervision of medicinal products, until December 21 to authorize the Pfizer shot and as late as last Wednesday to allow for the administration of the Moderna vaccine. Why the delay?

Meanwhile, by Thursday morning, Hungary had administered 74 percent of the doses we have received so far, inoculating more than 96,000 Hungarians: mostly doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, but also elderly citizens and elderly-home staff. According to Hungary’s large-scale vaccination plan that is already in motion, the vaccination of those at high-risk and above 60 years of age will be followed by others working on the front line, including law enforcement officers.

Despite mainstream media reports to the contrary, the Hungarian government did not “politicize” the issue of the coronavirus vaccine. Some even accused us of “jumping the gun” by starting to vaccinate earlier than other member states, “disregarding the European Commission's plan for a coordinated bloc-wide rollout.” Their cynicism knows no bounds. The government of Hungary is supposed to wait around for Brussels when our responsibility and priority is the health of Hungarian citizens?

As Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó pointed out at a press conference earlier today, the European Commission’s vaccine procurement is “scandalously slow,” as the number of weekly shipments to Hungary remains well below 100,000. At this rate, according to expert estimates, it would take 30 weeks to administer the shots to the most at-risk 3 million Hungarians. This, of course, is unacceptable. What makes the situation even more upsetting, FM Szijjártó added, is that the EC has spent months attacking those Member States, like Hungary, who sought alternative sources of the COVID-19 vaccine.

In fact, with now over 0.99 jabs per 100 inhabitants, Hungary ranks 7th among EU countries and leads countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France and Luxembourg.

In a different comparison, one cited by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in aninterview last Friday, with 2020 behind us, we must compare the total number of people who have succumbed to the coronavirus in 2020 by country. Subtracting the number of people who died in 2019 from last year’s total number will yield a rough estimate of COVID deaths. In this comparison, Hungary’s losses are lower than countries like Belgium, Italy, Spain, Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden and France. However, PM Orbán added, we cannot talk about “success” as long as a single person dies whose life could have been saved by the vaccine.

Although we have agreed to wait for further EU shipments of coronavirus vaccines, the progress is so painfully slow that we must keep negotiating with other potential sources of remedy, including Israel, China and Russia. In light of lastweek’s news about German Chancellor Angela Merkel offering to help produce Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in Germany, it seems a hypocritical that Hungary was called out for daring to consider all options for bringing reliable and effective vaccines to our citizens.

These double-standards are nothing new. One would hope, however, that some could rise above for a change, particularly as we fight the most difficult public health crisis we’ve seen in a century.

If ever there were a moment when the power and resources of the EU could be brought to bear to serve the Member States and the citizens of Europe, this is it. We certainly hope Brussels can step up its game.