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The European Commission on Wednesday submitted a draft proposal on the creation of an immunity certificate that would authorize travel within the European Union for those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, raising questions over whether Hungarians that receive jabs produced in Russia and China will enjoy the same benefits as other Europeans.
The proposal would create a common EU-wide "Digital Green Certificate" featuring a QR code that would be presented at national borders allowing free movement within the bloc even as the pandemic continues. The "Covid passport" would certify that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from the disease within the previous 180 days.
One provision of the draft proposal would require that the certificate display the type of vaccine received, opening the possibility that recipients of jabs not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) would not enjoy the same right of free movement in the EU.
In a statement, the European Commission said that all member states that waive public health restrictions like testing and quarantine for vaccinated people would be required to honor certificates displaying an EMA-approved vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AsztraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson), but that countries could choose whether to accept non-EMA approved vaccines like Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm.
Hungary has purchased millions of doses of the Russian and Chinese vaccines, and if the European Commission's draft proposal is adopted, Hungarians that receive those non-EMA approved jabs could miss out on travel privileges provided by the Digital Green Certificate.
In a press briefing on Thursday, the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said that Hungary "isn't waiting for any kind of certificate from Brussels, but vaccines," adding that the Commission's proposal could take two months or more to approve "and by then Hungary will be past the difficult part of pandemic defense, and because of our level of vaccination this question will no longer be relevant."
In late February, Hungary changed protocols for its own immunity certificate by removing the section displaying the type of vaccine received. This came one day after Poland announced it would only allow those travelling from Czechia and Slovakia to enter the country without restrictions if they could prove they'd been vaccinated with an EMA-approved jab.
Lack of qualified intensive care personnel puts health care system under strain
Hungary's health care system is facing an unprecedented strain as a powerful surge of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to worsen, requiring the transfer of medical workers to overburdened hospitals and medical students being recruited to work in understaffed Covid wards as doctors report having to decide who to admit to intensive care.
A decree published in the Hungarian government's official gazette on Saturday allows for medical students and residents to conduct independent medical activities in Hungarian hospitals, highlighting testimony by doctors that the health care system is reaching its maximum capacity due to a lack of qualified personnel. As of Thursday, 10,386 patients were being treated in hospitals for Covid-19, 1,170 of whom were on ventilators, both record highs.
In an interview with 444, intensive therapy specialist and secretary for the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, Dr. Tamás Svéd, said that increasingly high proportions of young patients, many in their 30s and 40s, are being placed in intensive care for Covid-19 infection. With limited qualified personnel, doctors are forced to decide whether to admit an elderly patient or a younger one to intensive wards, he said.
"I'm hearing from my colleagues that they are setting up more and more wards and putting together beds equipped with ventilators, but there aren't people to operate them and care for the patients," he said.
"These are potentially life-threatening treatments: a ventilator can be harmful if a patient doesn't receive enough attention," Svéd continued. "If we create many thousands more intensive beds, we aren't improving our chances, in fact it's the opposite. Then it's likely we won't be able to save even those that we have until now."
The burden on health care systems in countries facing a similar surge of the pandemic, like Czechia, Slovakia and Montenegro, led governments there to request assistance from abroad in caring for intensive patients. But in a radio interview on Sunday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Hungary will not request assistance from abroad, but will provide it to other countries through ventilators. (Since the beginning of the third wave in late January, Czechia, Slovakia, Montenegro and Hungary have the fastest-growing Covid-19 death rates in the world.)
In a press briefing on Thursday, Orbán's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyás, called it "lies" and "false news" that Hungary's health care system was struggling with capacity problems.
On Thursday, daily Covid-19 deaths in Hungary broke records for the second day in a row with 207, bringing the total to 17,628. The average age of those who die of Covid-19 has reduced significantly in recent weeks, down to 72 from an average of 76 at the end of February.
Vaccine contracts show legal vulnerabilities and an intermediary company with a colorful past
After weeks of denied requests by Hungarian media outlets, state secretary Gergely Gulyás released the contracts last Thursday for the government's purchase of Russian Sputnik V and Chinese Sinopharm vaccines, revealing one-sided agreements and the involvement of an intermediary company in the vaccine procurements.
The contract for the Russian vaccine, signed between Hungary's National Public Health Center and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, limits the financial liability of the Russian party to $100,000, a remarkably low figure given the total purchase price of more than $20 million for 2 million doses of the vaccine. Additionally, arbitration of any legal disputes over the vaccine may be exclusively handled according to Russian law and in a Moscow court, placing Hungary in a vulnerable legal position should any disputes arise.
The contract also exempts the Russian party from responsibility for any unforeseen force majeure circumstances, and also for failures to keep delivery deadlines due to delays in production of the vaccine. (Of the 600,000 doses of Sputnik V promised for delivery in February, only 425,000 have been delivered as of March 18, for which the Russian party faces no consequences per the contract.)
The contract to purchase 5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine reveals that the procurement took place through a Hungarian intermediary company called Danubia Pharma, which the Hungarian government paid €30 plus tax per dose for a total of HUF 55 billion (€149 million), making Sinopharm the most expensive vaccine in use in the country.
Sinopharm has sold doses of its vaccines to countries directly without the use of an intermediary company, and for substantially less: Senegal purchased doses of the jab for €15.50 each, about half the price Hungary paid to the intermediary.
While it is unclear how much Danubia Pharma paid Sinopharm for the vaccine doses, and thus how much it stands to profit, the company has little past experience in conducting such deals. Company records show that its revenues have dropped continuously since 2015, and that with the Sinopharm contract its annual revenues in 2021 will be 150 times what it took in last year.
Additionally, past owners of the intermediary company have connections to uncompleted EU-funded development projects, an Australian businessman whose offshore companies were implicated in money laundering for Mexican drug cartels and smuggling arms from North Korea to Iran, and business people that profited from procuring some of the 16,000 ventilators Hungary purchased last year at a cost of €813 million.
SzFE students could receive their degrees from foreign universities
Students who choose not to continue their studies at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SzFE) after a controversial government-initiated restructuring of the institution could receive their degrees from foreign universities, an organization representing the students wrote on its Facebook page Wednesday.
The agreement, announced by the Freeszfe Association, is part of a program it launched called "Emergency Exit", an initiative "to create an escape route for students who, due to the restructuring of the institution and the circumstances surrounding it, do not consider the conditions of freedom of education and autonomous creative work at SzFE to be ensured.” The association, which includes former instructors at the university, has held secret negotiations for months with foreign institutions to allow for SzFE students to earn their degrees through the Emergency Exit program.
The move to gain degrees from foreign universities came after hundreds of SzFE students occupied campus buildings for around 70 days last fall in protest of a government-imposed management model which saw the university's democratically-elected senate stripped of its powers and replaced with a board of directors stacked with government appointees. SzFE leaders - including the acting rector, deputy rector, and the heads of each of the university's faculties - resigned over the move, arguing it endangered the university's academic autonomy, but the government refused to back down and went forward with the restructuring.
Some 150 students have already entered agreements with the five foreign universities, the Freeszfe Association wrote, adding that internal surveys indicate that more students would take advantage of such opportunities and that negotiations are ongoing with other institutions.
The universities - including the University of Music in Salzburg, the University of Performing Arts in Ludwigsburg, the University of Performing Arts in Warsaw and its outsourced puppetry department in Bialystok, and the Swiss Academy of Drama - have agreed to take over 14 classes offered at SzFE, and to recognize coursework and exams administered in Hungary by the Freeszfe Association, which will be considered a partner institution.
Students are currently conducting digital education due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Freeszfe Association is searching for a building in Budapest where classes may resume outside the auspices of SzFE.
"The goal of the Freeszfe Association is to create an autonomous creative workshop which is worthy of the University of Theatre and Film Arts' 155 years of tradition," the group wrote in a statement. "While our university was deprived of its self-determination, we will not give up so that we can show that it is worth creating only freely, without political influence."