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Hungary says will focus on EU, Chinese coronavirus vaccine purchases

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will buy anti-coronavirus vaccines through the EU procurement mechanism or directly from China because Russia cannot make enough of its rival vaccine to inoculate Hungary’s 10 million population, a senior official said on Thursday.

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas told broadcaster ATV that Hungary would continue scientific cooperation with Russia over its COVID-19 vaccine but it would not be at the heart of its vaccination program at this stage.

“Russia has inadequate manufacturing capacity,” Gulyas told ATV in an interview whose transcript was published on its website.

“We are happy to partake in the testing, but vaccines en masse may come as part of the EU procurements or from China,” he added.

Hungary has participated in Russia’s testing efforts and was an early recipient of small batches of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, raising alarm among its European peers that it would bypass the European Union’s approval mechanism.

Hungary received 6,000 doses of the Sputnik V earlier this week though it remained unclear how the shot would be administered and under what approval process.

Gulyas’s remarks were the first clear indication by a senior Hungarian official that Russia’s vaccine will not be used in Hungary’s mass inoculation programme for the time being.

Reuters was unable to contact Gulyas, who posted the interview on his own Facebook page, to confirm the accuracy of his comments to ATV.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backs the vaccine’s development and which is responsible for its marketing abroad, denied that Hungary had decided against any further purchases of the Russian vaccine.

“Hungary has already received the first batch of the vaccine on December 28 and we are ready to fully supply all of the vaccine required by Hungary in January - March of 2021,” it said in a statement.

“RDIF is working with regulators on the regulatory approvals in Hungary,” it said. It acknowledged that Hungary may source vaccines from China or through the EU’s mechanism in addition to Sputnik V.

The Russian statement was a rare sign of discord with Orban’s Hungary. During his decade-long rule, Orban has ignored critics to forge strong ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, including major joint projects such as a new nuclear power plant.

Hungary has agreed to participate in trials for the Sputnik V vaccine, sent experts to Russia to observe its manufacture and floated the idea of producing it in Hungary.

The government has not committed to submitting vaccines it clears for use in Hungary to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for approval, saying it would use its own experts for testing and approval in line with EU emergency rules.

Earlier this month Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary would also seek emergency domestic approval of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine rather than waiting for EMA approval.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Barbara Lewis and Jon Boyle