Czech and Hungarian leaders in Israel to discuss Covid-19 strategy

Vaccine debate intensifies as pandemic's third wave batters central Europe

Vaccines from Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm being unloaded in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Zsolt Szigetvary/EPA

Vaccines from Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm being unloaded in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Zsolt Szigetvary/EPA

 

Czech and Hungarian leaders have visited Israel to discuss joint efforts to fight Covid-19 and learn from its successful inoculation programme, as a strong third wave of the pandemic and fierce debate on vaccines roil central Europe.

The Czech Republic now has the world’s highest per-capita rate of new coronavirus infections and deaths, and other states in the region – including Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Serbia, Estonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria and Montenegro – are also badly affected, according to figures from Our World in Data.

Hungary reported a record daily rise of 8,312 new cases on Thursday, and the country’s hospitals are now treating 8,329 Covid-19 patients, more than 10 per cent of whom are on ventilators.

The Czech Republic registered 14,353 new infections over the previous 24 hours and said a record 1,916 Covid-19 patients were in a serious condition. With more than 8,700 coronavirus cases on their wards, Czech doctors have started moving some patients to Poland and Germany, as have their colleagues in Slovakia.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, were in Israel on Thursday to meet premier Binyamin Netanyahu, who says 90 per cent of eligible Israelis have already received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot or recovered from the virus.

Mr Babis’s office called Israel “the world leader in vaccination” and said he would discuss vaccine strategy and manufacture and possible Czech participation “in a joint fund that would support the production of vaccines and experimental medicines”.

Beyond the EU

Last week, Danish and Austrian leaders agreed with Mr Netanyahu – who has made the vaccine programme a centrepiece of his campaign for re-election this month – to establish such a joint fund to research, develop and potentially manufacture vaccines for booster shots and to combat coronavirus mutations.

The decision by Vienna and Copenhagen to seek a vaccine partner outside the European Union drew criticism from France, but came amid a chorus of complaints from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other member states over the pace of the bloc’s vaccine approval, procurement and distribution system.

Hungary is the only member state now using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and China’s Sinopharm shot, neither of which have been cleared by EU regulator the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Mr Orban’s government, which maintains good ties with Moscow and Beijing, says the policy has allowed about 11 per cent of Hungary’s residents to receive at least one vaccine shot, more people per capita than in every other EU state except Malta.

Slovakia is now assessing Sputnik V, but prime minister Igor Matovic’s surprise decision to buy it sparked a furious row in his ruling coalition.

Czech president Milos Zeman, who advocates close relations with Russia and China, has asked them to send vaccines to his country and suggested this week that health minister Jan Blatny should be sacked for failing to approve Sputnik V.

“I will not make Sputnik V an exception from current rules,” Mr Blatny said in response. “My stance will remain unchanged for as long as I hold the ministerial post. Only medicines approved by EMA will be used for vaccination.”