Katalin Nagy: According to the latest data, 63,000 people were vaccinated in Hungary in just one day at the weekend. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Can this pace be maintained?
Good morning to your listeners. Yes, it can. We salute the hospital doctors, general practitioners, healthcare workers at vaccination points, nurses and assistants: everyone who’s taking part in this. To maintain this pace we need three things. First of all, we need people who want to be vaccinated. I ask everyone to register, and to be vaccinated, as only the vaccine can help. Second, we need staff to administer the vaccines: hospital doctors, nurses and general practitioners. And finally we need vaccines to administer. Our only problem is with the latter. The basic figure we’re working with is that we’ve ordered enough Western vaccines for 13 million people. And as in November I realised that there would be problems with the Western procurement system, we ordered enough Eastern vaccines for another 3.5 million people. So in total we’ve ordered enough vaccines for the inoculation of 16.5 million people. The question now is when these will arrive. The Russian and Chinese vaccines are arriving more or less on time – in fact sometimes, when they’re able to, the Chinese have the grace to send supplies earlier than scheduled. The vaccines ordered and distributed by the EU, however, are either not arriving or else they’re arriving very slowly. Every week, everyone in Europe who has placed their faith in the joint Brussels procurement effort suffers yet another disappointment. When you add up the numbers, you’ll see that these vaccines will be enough for the inoculation of 16.5 million people. Knowing their Hungarian history, the listeners of this programme will immediately realise why we’re aiming for this many, as we’ve also had to prepare for there not being enough vaccines beyond our borders. These 16.5 million doses of vaccine will be enough for every Hungarian in the world.
But will there be enough people to carry this out? I ask this because many people are now concerned that hospitals won’t be able to cope with the pressure. The occupancy rate for beds in some hospitals is now at 90 per cent, because there are so many patients – even in intensive care units.
Indeed, experts say that this is the third wave. The second wave was stronger than the first, and this third wave is stronger than the second one was. Those who’ve served in the army and have been on guard duty know that the night is always darkest immediately before dawn; and this is the moment we’re in now. So we must pay attention to two things: the darkness and the dawn. The darkness is the continuously rising number of infections: concerns over whether hospitals will cope, whether there will be enough ventilators, and whether there will be enough staff. Then there’s the dawn: the vaccine, and the question of whether enough people have registered. I have some good news on that, because as I see it we Hungarians are beginning to stand tall and straight: the number of people who have registered is now more than three million. Recently this number has risen sharply, with a high rate of new registrations. I have an exact number somewhere. The percentage of people over the age of sixty is extremely high. Now the Operational Group is faced with the dilemma of whether people should be vaccinated in the order that they registered, regardless of age, or whether we should allow the elderly – who may have registered later – to be vaccinated ahead of young people. This wasn’t a simple debate, but in the end we decided that as those over sixty are most at risk, we’ll put them ahead in the vaccination queue – even if they registered later. So this is how we’re vaccinating; we’re vaccinating today, we’re vaccinating tomorrow as well, and we’ll vaccinate continuously for as long as there are vaccines. As regards hospital beds, after this interview I’m going to the Ministry of Interior, where I’ll consult with all hospital directors in a video conference, to see how well prepared they are for the week ahead. This will probably be the most difficult week of the entire pandemic, in terms of hospital beds, ventilators and the number of doctors and nurses we’re able to deploy.
Won’t we need assistance from abroad as Slovakia did earlier?
As far as we can see, we’re fine, meaning that we’ll be able to give assistance to others, rather than ask for it. In proportion to our population we perhaps have more beds than anyone else in Europe, and proportionally we certainly have the highest number of ventilators. We’ve deployed residents, asking them to switch to “compulsory work” mode. I don’t think there’s any resistance on their part, and so I’d also like to thank those young people. In fact we can also deploy medical students in their final year. There’s a central deployment plan, which determines from which parts of the country doctors and nurses need to be transferred to which other parts of the country, should the need arise. This is inconvenient, this is very difficult – especially for those who are being transferred. They’re working in difficult circumstances as it is, and now they’re required to work in unfamiliar locations. So we salute them. But I think that they sense that now people’s lives and freedom depend on them. In the meantime I keep hearing from the Left that the Hungarian healthcare system is weak in this way or that way, bad in this way or that; by this they’re referring to the weakness of the people working in the system. As I see it, despite all these attacks, every day I witness the opposite: our doctors are dedicated and strong, and our nurses are doing everything possible. So I believe that we’ll cope. But let me repeat this: we face a very difficult week, and now we’re living the darkest moments before the dawn.
While even the Western media is reporting that Hungary is a European champion in vaccination, it seems that the Opposition has found an angle to present a less favourable conclusion. They say that if we look at the number of vaccine doses in storage in various countries, and then check how many of them have been used, this is an indicator of efficiency. And according to them, this indicator shows that Hungary’s performance is the second worst in Europe.
That’s a despicable lie. The reality is the following. We think in terms of vaccination weeks, with a vaccination week running from Tuesday to Tuesday. So when a consignment is received, we administer those vaccines immediately, within a day or two. Every delivery must first be inspected, to check that it’s in order. This is a safety firewall, and every consignment must first pass that test, with this work being done by medical and epidemiological experts. Immediately after that we administer the vaccines. Any doses that are in storage will either be distributed in the next day or two, or are the booster doses for the first vaccines: they’re the second vaccines to be given to people who have already received their first dose. I don’t want to discuss a medical issue that I myself am not entirely familiar with, but there’s always a debate about how many days should be left between the first and second doses of each type of vaccine. Manufacturers and European and Hungarian healthcare experts don’t always agree on this: there are different views about whether the period should be 21, 28 or 35 days, and so on. In any case, every type of vaccine needs a booster injection. There’s a type of vaccine which only requires a single dose, and we’ve ordered four million doses of that; but it isn’t available yet in Hungary. At present we’re only administering vaccines which require a second dose. I’ve only received the first dose myself, and I’ll need a second dose; the question is how many days later I’ll receive it. So the twin of that first dose which has already been administered must be kept in storage. Presenting this as some sort of delay is a despicable lie.
Yes, but when numbers started rising dramatically the vaccination plan was changed, so that from now on everyone who registers should receive their first dose; because in doing so we’ll gain time and save lives.
Yes, but our experts are serious men and women; people’s health is at stake here, and our epidemiological experts are reluctant to embark on irresponsible adventures without test results, verified data and internationally recognised facts. At times I feel that they ought to make decisions more swiftly, but I realise that we’re navigating completely unchartered waters, and they have a personal responsibility to avoid experimenting on people. Therefore they always wait for the development of international consensus. They’re involved in expert debates which, as you may remember, earlier concluded that the period [between doses] should be 28 days. Now they say it can be as long as 35 days. But this cannot be simply a Hungarian decision: an international consensus must be reached within the medical profession. Incidentally, I’m in favour of vaccinating as many people as possible with the first dose, but they must also receive the second dose, otherwise the first is rendered meaningless. So however impatient we may be, we must always listen to the Hungarian experts, who are part of a large international consultation system.
On the news we’ve heard that five EU Member States, led by Austria, have asked the President of the European Commission and the head of the Council to convene an EU summit. This is to clarify why the distribution of vaccines across the European Union has been disproportionate – as this is what’s indicated by experience and the figures. Do you think that this will have consequences if Austria takes the lead in this initiative, enabling these countries’ voices to be better heard?
Well, let’s concentrate on the facts. We can confidently say that the European Union is one of the most infected regions in the entire world. There’s sure to be an epidemiological explanation for this, which is irrelevant now; but this is a fact. The European Union accounts for 5.5 per cent of the world’s population; but 20 per cent of the people who have died in the pandemic so far were EU nationals. This indicates that here the problem is bigger than it is in other parts of the world; or that it is at present, because later on those other parts may find themselves in the same situation – much as I dislike the thought. This is the first fact. The second fact relates to the progress of vaccination. I’ve just been to Israel, where I met the Prime Minister and where we also concluded some important deals. In Israel – which although it’s in the East, we can nonetheless refer to it as culturally Western – I could see for myself that they’re way ahead of us, and that they’ll soon have finished their whole campaign. Or take Britain, where the vaccination rate stands somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent, or between 30 and 40 per cent. Then here we are, the countries of the European Union, where the average rate is 6.8 per cent, so less than 7 per cent, while Britain – after withdrawal from the European Union – will soon reach 40 or even 50 per cent. This clearly indicates that something isn’t right. This isn’t a political issue, this isn’t finger-pointing, and it’s not a question of dislike for the EU or Brussels bureaucrats; it’s a simple fact. This is the situation. They’ve botched up: week after week, we’re finding that the deliveries that we reserved and ordered aren’t arriving, the numbers are lower than expected, and so on. The listeners can’t see it, but I’m holding a notice from AstraZeneca, in which they inform us that in the upcoming period their vaccine supplies will show a shortfall of a few hundred thousand – a few hundred thousand! They’ll deliver them later, but not now. In a situation like this, we must try to make up for the loss by procuring vaccines from elsewhere, or by rescheduling and bringing forward the deliveries coming from elsewhere. But a large number – in fact the majority – of European Union countries haven’t even ordered Russian or Chinese vaccines; and now they have nowhere to turn, they simply can’t do anything, and they’re suffering the consequences. I think that the Austrian chancellor has had his fill of this, and has said “Enough is enough!” And I think he’s right, I agree with his view. Something’s not right, because the agreement – which we concluded in person, with all 27 of us taking part in it – was that the vaccines would be distributed in proportion to each country’s population – or “pro rata”, as they say in Brusselese. But this isn’t borne out by our experience. Some countries are receiving more vaccines, while others are receiving fewer. We’d be in deep trouble if we hadn’t ordered Eastern vaccines, if we hadn’t ordered 3.5 million of them – 500,000 of which have already been used. The only reason we’re not in trouble is that the alarm bells started ringing in November: I saw the chaos and confusion, and in November we started negotiations on procurement of vaccines from other sources. This was something for which we were criticised by the Left: the Left in Hungary, and also sometimes the Left internationally. This is despite the fact that, in my view, they should be acclaiming the Hungarian experts – primarily those in foreign affairs and epidemiology – who foresaw the trouble ahead and decided in good time.
Hungary, the Hungarian government, has published the Russian and Chinese vaccine contracts. Why did you feel it was necessary to publish them, given that the European Union is refusing to disclose details of its vaccine contracts to the public?
I think that’s the very reason. First of all, the Left demanded that we publish the contracts; and we were able to do so, because there are no clauses in them which contain confidential business information affecting the interests of manufacturers or suppliers that would prevent us. Contracts frequently feature a clause referring to the contracting business partner’s interests, according to which a supplier will only sign the contract if certain business data, the purchase price and details regarding the circumstances of delivery are not made public.
The EU cites this as the reason...
This is what the EU says, but I think it was a mistake to sign such contracts. There were reasons to suspect that disputes would arise, and in the dispute only public scrutiny can help. There are now two disputes. One dispute is about what the Brussels bureaucrats bungled, which forms a nice long list. They can’t defend themselves, because they’re not able or willing to publish the contracts. They should use the contracts to prove that they’ve negotiated well, that they’ve exercised due care, and that they’ve concluded contracts which serve Europeans’ best interests. This is why they should make them public. This is what we’re demanding, but they’re not doing so. The other predictable dispute is about money – and we’re talking about pharmaceutical manufacturers and enormous sums. This consideration is far lower on our list of priorities, because the things that are most important to us are people’s lives, vaccination and hospital care. Between you and I, if they’d charged more for the vaccines, we’d have been prepared to pay more. I don’t want to publicly undermine our negotiating positions, but this is about human lives. In a situation like this, anything that isn’t absolutely unrealistic must be paid; because if one could buy life with money, one would even give the shirt off one’s back for it. But we could foresee that the pharmaceutical companies would compete with one another, and there would be questions about whose vaccine is better, who can sell more and who can sell at the best price. These controversies emerging in the guise of medical debates are, I suspect, frequently more about money. An example of this is the campaign against AstraZeneca. And in one part of the world or another, in general we can expect attacks on most vaccine types; and we can rest assured – or at least strongly suspect – that there will always be financial interests behind such attacks. The EU should have prepared for these, and they could only defend themselves by presenting the contracts to the public. Now the unfortunate Brussels bureaucrats – although in fact we are the unfortunates – find that without contracts which can be seen by the public, they’re unable to defend themselves against the accusation that they negotiated badly, or against the accusation that they’re at the mercy of economic warfare among the pharmaceutical manufacturers. Only public transparency can help.
Now that you’ve made these contracts public, everyone can see the prices: how much the Russian vaccine cost, and how much the Chinese vaccine cost. Some opposition parties claim that we paid a very high price for the Chinese vaccine.
I will repeat: if tomorrow we could buy one, two or three million vaccines at a higher price than the Chinese or any other vaccine, if I had to personally decide about buying such vaccines, the Finance Minister would make that sum available and we’d buy them. We’re not talking about money. Naturally we can’t accept unrealistically high prices, but let me repeat: if we could buy lives with money, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.
Yesterday there were news reports that there’s a general practitioner in the village of Erdőkertes, Dr. Csaba Kiss, who is unwilling to vaccinate his patients. He has 2,500 patients. But one only needs to look at how opposition parties communicate, what messages they post on social media, and who they give a platform to. Anti-vaccination sentiment is permanently present on the Left. Why is this?
Indeed, we’re also fighting against this: we need to simultaneously fight against the pandemic and against the Left. And the Left aren’t fighting against the vaccine, but against us. Of course you can say that we shouldn’t moan, because politics is that kind of discipline, and there’s a lot of truth in that; but one always expects more from people. At a time when people’s lives are at risk, politicising vaccination – turning vaccines into a political issue – is a morally unconscionable low-point, it’s morally unacceptable. Let’s just consider the following. We’ve vaccinated more than 500,000 people with non-Western vaccines, with Chinese and Russian vaccines. If we hadn’t vaccinated these people, it can be easily deduced from the statistics that hundreds of them could have died. How could those on the Left live with themselves, knowing that they had talked people out of vaccination, and as a result hundreds of people had died?
And meanwhile, they’re being vaccinated.
How can a general practitioner be against vaccination, while knowing and seeing that without vaccines people are dying? Attitudes like this from general practitioners are problems in the Hungarian healthcare system. It’s one thing for the Left to create fake videos, attack doctors and seek to discredit healthcare workers. That’s unworthy, and it’s wrong. And meanwhile there are some healthcare workers who are anti-vaccination. But now isn’t the time to iron out this problem. We’ll have to talk about this, we’ll have to decide how it should be in the future, or what we want to do, but now isn’t the time for that. Instead, we must make arrangements to ensure that people still have access to the vaccine in Erdőkertes or any other part of the country where there are doctors who oppose vaccination. People must be given access to the vaccine. Now isn’t the time to call people to account, but the time to carry on working, to provide care for people and to enable them to be vaccinated – regardless of the fact that the Left or some doctors oppose vaccination.
Some elements of the relaunch action plan have already started. It’s now possible to apply for interest-free loans of up to ten million forints, with repayment starting only after three years. What else can we expect?
First of all, in addition to specific measures, we must also think further ahead. We must think in the longer term to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in such a situation again. So while it’s important to relaunch the economy, we must ensure that once we’ve relaunched we don’t find ourselves in a similar situation again. In the spring we learnt a few lessons: that we don’t have our own factory for face masks, we don’t have our own factory for surgical gloves, and we don’t have our own factory for ventilators. We’ve solved these problems, and now we have these things, and Hungary is self-sufficient in them. Now we’re learning the lesson that we don’t have a vaccine factory and our own vaccine. So now we’re doing two things. First of all, Hungarian scientists are developing a vaccine. This is making progress, in one of the clinical phases. Its progress is slower than that of multinational companies working with vast sums of money, but our scientists will also develop the Hungarian version of a vaccine against the coronavirus. This will take a long time, and we’re now perhaps at the “lab rat” phase, but we’re making progress with this work. This work must be done, even though there are non-Hungarian-developed vaccines on the market. We’d like to have such a vaccine for the period ahead. We live in an age of pandemics. Taking the first wave of the avian flu as the starting point, this is the second wave; and we can reasonably assume that further pandemics could emerge, so we must prepare for them. The other thing is that we need manufacturing capacity. The problem isn’t simply that we don’t have our own vaccines that we’ve developed ourselves, but we also don’t have the manufacturing capacity to produce enough vaccines for 10 or 15 million Hungarians. We’re now building a large factory in Debrecen. In a year’s time Hungary will be self-sufficient in terms of vaccines. And I’ve also come to an agreement with the Prime Minister of Israel on our jointly building a factory in Israel: there will be a factory in Israel in which Hungary will have a share, and we’ll also make vaccines outside the territory of the EU, because it’s better to stand on two legs than to balance on just one. So we’ve been preparing for the future, but we still need to get there; long-term plans are fine, but we’re faced with the challenge of relaunching. In this regard, we’ve been doing what we can. I’ve been meeting a lot of people, and none of them are in happy state of mind. I can say that fun isn’t part of one’s daily life if you’re a florist, if you’re a hairdresser, if you work in the services sector, and the lockdown means that you’ve lost your customers and are facing serious business and economic problems. I empathise with them, and we’ll do everything we can to tide them over this difficult period. To keep this period short we need two things. Firstly, the Left and deranged doctors – I apologise for talking about them like this, but despite being doctors they’ve taken leave of their senses – must stop the anti-vaccination campaign; because if they do, the period of lockdown can be shortened. The other thing is that during this period we’re providing financial assistance: we’re providing wage support funding, and businesses aren’t required to pay taxes or rental fees. So we have measures – which we’ve published – designed to help them. Then we’ll have to try to reopen the country, so that life can return to normal.
When could the reopening of the country start, according to your plans?
If anyone ventures to predict that, we’d also ask them to tell us next week’s lottery numbers. I have to say that in November, when the second wave was gaining momentum, no one – or very few people – thought, say, that stopping the second wave wouldn’t be enough, and there would also be a third one. This has been caused by mutations. If I’ve understood our professors correctly, what’s happening is that the virus, too, is defending itself against the measures being taken against it, and the virus, too, is responding. We’ve attacked it with the vaccine, we’re now on the counter-offensive, and now it’s defending itself by trying to create ever more mutations. The big question for the future is whether or not the vaccines developed so far will also be able to protect us against further mutations that emerge later on. If the answer to this is yes, then this is the optimistic answer, and we’ll be able to reopen soon. If a mutation emerges against which the vaccines developed so far are ineffective, then we’ll find ourselves in a completely new situation. There are five types of vaccine available in Hungary – incidentally, more different types of vaccine are available in Hungary than anywhere else in the world – and our rate of vaccination is first or second in the whole of Europe. So if there was such a contest – although there isn’t, because every life matters – we’d definitely be competing for a place on the podium. Our experience so far – and let’s talk about our experience, rather than our fears – shows that the vaccines developed so far and available in Hungary provide a good response to every mutation we now know of, providing immunity against all those mutations. This is the situation. If we accept this as our premise, we only need to hold on for a few more weeks. If a new mutation appears, we’ll have to launch a new action plan.
It’s 15 March tomorrow, and if my memory serves me, this is the second time we’ve had to cancel celebrations for it. Last year they also had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. At the same time, we’ve heard that some people would like to organise mass events. What’s your opinion on that?
Well, 15 March is especially close to the hearts of our generation. But we’re no longer young, and I hope that we’ve managed to pass on some of this feeling to our children and grandchildren. We try to make rosettes together with them. Members of our generation remember that for 364 days of the year the song used to be “Long Live Socialism!” and “Long Live Moscow!”, and we waited for that one day – the 365th, on 15 March – when even the communists couldn’t do anything, because everyone across the whole country said “Long Live Hungary’s Freedom!” and “Long Live the Homeland!” Everyone was thinking that the Soviets must leave – and that the communists, too, must go somewhere, to the much warmer climes of another world. Every year this gave us strength. We thought that communists wouldn’t stand a chance as long as there were enough of us in Hungary who on 15 March said, “Long Live Hungary’s Freedom!” and “Long Live the Homeland!”: it would just be a question of how long it would take us to grind them down, upend them and sweep them away. And this is what happened. In my view, without the tradition of 15 March it wouldn’t have been possible to displace communism, and we wouldn’t have been able to regain our freedom. So I always have the stirring thought that the Thirteen Martyrs of Arad did not die in vain. One says this, but one isn’t always convinced about exactly what one should think about it. Our generation is well aware of how one should think about this: that they did not die in vain, because many decades later, in 1990, their tradition, memory and spiritual strength helped us to regain our own freedom. This is how a nation is built. Naturally we also have 23 October, which is also very important, as is the foundation of the state, because we’d be nowhere without St. Stephen. But I can say that 15 March has a special atmosphere and flavour – after all, it prompts us to say things like “Long Live the Homeland” and “Long Live Hungary’s Freedom”. Politicians keep trying to draw parallels between those times and today. Now, there’s no need to exert oneself or break sweat in trying to do so; because now, too, our freedom is at stake. But now we’re fighting against a slippery, treacherous enemy. This is the nature of the modern age – unlike the situation in 1848–49, when the relations were clear and open, and when men faced each other head-to-head and fought. Today we’re grappling and fighting with a contemptible enemy, but it’s attacking our freedom just as our freedom was endangered by Viennese tyranny in 1848–49. So we don’t need to look for parallels: they’re right here in front of us. If we want to regain our freedom, we must love our country, and party politics must not be allowed to take priority over the affairs of the nation. The Opposition must also understand, the Left must also understand, that the country cannot be in opposition. If there is trouble, then all we have is our homeland, independence and freedom. And if we unite, we shall also regain our freedom now, in 2021.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.