Orbán's Chinese vaccine gamble seems to have paid off

May 14. 2021. – 09:36 PM



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Last Friday, the World Health Organization announced that they gave Emergency Use listing to Sinopharm's Covid-19 vaccine. Even though this does not oblige countries to do anything, in practice, this means that now, besides Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson&Johnson, and Moderna, the Chinese vaccine is also in the "accepted worldwide" mental category. This is an important development, even if the vaccine was already widely used in many countries, including Hungary.

The translation was produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.What gives the WHO's decision its particular importance in Hungary is that the most extensive domestic political dispute of recent times centred around the Chinese vaccine. So much that by now, the term "anti-vaxxer left" is pretty much on par with "Soros," "Brussels," and "migrants" as a government communication trope, primed for the upcoming election campaign. Here is why, in a nutshell:

  • The opposition heavily criticized the procurement and the use of Eastern vaccines, saying that the purchasing process was opaque, and at the time their distribution first started, there was no evidence supporting their effectiveness and safety.
  • Since then, the government has been saying over and over again that the Hungarian left conducts a campaign against vaccination in general, and they are responsible for many people's deaths.

Last week's WHO announcement allowed the government to lean into this line of communication heavily; Now, even the WHO backs Sinopharm, but since the opposition was against it, it is clear as day that they are against vaccination as a whole.

And lean into it they did:

  • MFA Péter Szijjártó issued a statement mere minutes after the WHO announcement: "The opposition has been leading irresponsible politics, risking people's lives, but their point of view was now proven wrong."
  • Minister of Human Capacities Miklós Kásler picked up the thread, saying "with WHO's decision, the Hungarian government's position had been vindicated."
  • Minister of Justice Judit Varga also joined in, saying, "You can smile now! The vaccine is safe and effective. We, Hungarians, knew that for a while."
  • Fidesz communications director Balázs Hidvéghi was the next to jump on the bandwagon, assessing that "the anti-vaxxer left fell flat on its face now that the WHO approved Sinopharm's vaccine."

And all of this happened in just a few hours after the announcement; we will likely see this everywhere in the coming weeks. The other strong message besides this is that the WHO, the experts of the world, and the world, in general, was miles behind the Hungarian government; They acted way before anyone else, knowing that the Chinese vaccine is safe when others still only suspected. And although the sequence of events could be interpreted this way, a few questions remain: If the government knew, how did they know, what was the basis of their bet on Sinopharm? Why didn't they share the supporting evidence with the public or the WHO?

In order to better understand the current situation, let's take a look at what happened until now.

Previously, in Hungarian politics...

In November, the Hungarian government announced that they were in talks with China and Russia about vaccine purchases. The opposition immediately objected to this, calling it an irresponsible step as Eastern vaccines lacked the detailed documentation and test results their Western counterparts had. The EMA was yet to examine them, and they still have no European approval. In response to this, the Hungarian government let their "anti-vaxxer left" rhetorics loose in December. Soon, Orbán was saying that campaigning against the vaccines is a "sin" and that the left is killing people, stressing that the opposition party DK (Democratic Coalition) even launched a petition against the Chinese vaccine.

Despite this, the rollout of Sinopharm's vaccine commenced in February. The story of the Hungarian approval of the Chinese product is rather adventurous: the government announced purchasing millions of doses way before the Hungarian pharmaceutical bureau OGYÉI ever got around to examining it. But before that could have happened, a decree pretty much decimated the authority's powers – they still had to approve the vaccine, but at this point, it was a mere formality.

In March, the government published the purchase agreements on the Russian and Chinese vaccines, which contained several strange details; for instance, Hungary purchased Sinopharm's vaccines through a questionable intermediary for a very high price. It is a mystery to this day why this company was necessary, how it was chosen, what its background is, how much profit it made on the billion Forint business, and why couldn't a state-owned company conduct this deal instead, in a transparent manner.

At the end of April, when the Chinese vaccine had been in use for quite some time, the Hungarian government published a strange chart on the efficiency of the various vaccines. For the laymen, the chart clearly showed the superiority of the Eastern vaccines over the Western ones. However, the experts tore the chart to pieces, saying it is misleading and it makes no sense professionally. Despite that, the government kept pushing the chart like there was no tomorrow, spending millions of Forints on Facebook advertising it, responding to the criticism by simply saying that "the experts shouldn't incite fear."

At the beginning of May, the WHO published a new evaluation of Sinopharm's vaccine, summarising the results of all available examinations. The report assessed that the evidence for the vaccine's effectiveness among those above 60 is weak. This does not mean that it is ineffective, only that there is not enough data to say beyond doubt that it is effective. This was particularly uncomfortable for Hungary, as the country primarily used Sinopharm to immunize pensioners. While we do not exactly know how effective the vaccine is on the elderly, the government keeps repeating somewhat misleading messages such as "the virus bounces off anyone who is vaccinated." Another recent talking point of the pro-government media is that lobbying from Western Big Pharma delayed the Eastern vaccines' approval because they want to protect their interests and markets from Eastern products.

This was when WHO made its announcement: Sinopharm is effective and safe even above 60.

However, they have noted that there is only indirect proof of this, and there is not enough data to be certain; therefore, they encouraged all countries to monitor safety and effectiveness in this demographic. This is exactly what Hungarian researchers have asked the government to do a couple of weeks before. Then, the government swept this off the table by publishing the abovementioned chart while repeating the "anti-vaxxer left" catchphrase. Later, it turned out that there is an ongoing study on the topic after all.

Still, it is clear that the WHO is not entirely sure about the thing the Hungarian government claims to have known for six months. We have seen no evidence of said knowledge ever since, and what we have seen suggests the exact opposite. So instead of "we knew," a more accurate phrase from the government would be "we hoped," or "we believed." But does that even matter, given the results?

Why just now?

The WHO approval process of the Sinopharm vaccine dragged on for so long because China did not share complete test results with the world. External, independent experts had much fewer data to go on than they did with Western manufacturers, where even incidents like AstraZeneca's one-in-a-million chance of producing blood clots saw the light of day. This, of course, is not necessarily because China had anything to hide; there could be other factors at play. China managed to keep the virus relatively under control with the traditional methods (quarantines and testing). Given this, their vaccination program focused more on the active demographic to keep the economy running. There simply weren't enough test subjects during the slow-burning epidemic for a proper, large-scale, placebo-controlled testing phase, especially in the older demographic, as strange as that may sound in the most populated country of the world.

WHO, and the world in general, is stressed for time, there are growing inequalities in vaccine availability between rich and developing countries, and the pandemic is just gaining momentum in India. On the one hand, the situation in India affects a large number of people who have low access to healthcare. On the other, it ties up the country's vaccine manufacturing capacities (India uses a license from AstraZeneca); a couple of weeks ago, the country halted all vaccine exports as they were needed in India's own rollout.

The approval of the Chinese vaccine alleviates these pressures, even if the price is that we only have indirect and theoretical proof that it is safe and effective with the older demographic. It is likely to be a better option than waiting for the test results indefinitely.

The rationale behind the Hungarian government's decision could likely have been the same a few months ago, only based on less information, which, at that time, was a leap into the unknown. Just like the current WHO decision is to some extent, it was Russian roulette; only there were a few more live rounds in the cylinder back then.

By today, it is apparent that the gamble paid off. We can say with considerable certainty that if Hungary wouldn't have approved and started rolling out the Eastern vaccines at the start of the year, we would have seen more infections, and consequently, more deaths. The mortality rate is tragic as it is, so it is horrible to think of what could have happened otherwise. So the outcome is positive; the question remains if it was a brave decision or an irresponsible bet. With its unnatural attraction to war metaphors, the Hungarian government propaganda could probably push the former with great effect as well.

Instead of that, what we see is a "we knew it before anyone else, we were smarter than everybody" rhetoric, the stereotypical line of the likeable scientist from disaster movies who ends up saving the world despite nobody believing him at first. This would be a dramatic new pose for Viktor Orbán, who has significant experience playing archetypal characters such as the street fighter, the heroic revolutionary, or the warlike general – it is not sure this new role would suit him just as well. Still, the phrase "anti-vaxxer left" is likely to stay with us in the foreseeable future, even if WHO's decision did not make it any less of a stretch.

This article is a direct translation of the analysis published by Telex in Hungarian on 8 May 2021. The translation was produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.