BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary may start inoculating people with Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine next week after it granted the shot emergency use approval, making it the first EU country to do so, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio on Friday.
It is scheduled to receive 600,000 doses of Sputnik and another half a million doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine this month, potentially allowing it to speed up its inoculation programme despite delays in Western vaccine deliveries.
EU countries so far are relying almost entirely on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but Hungary's drug regulator approved Sputnik V for use last month.
Under a deal also signed last month, Russia will ship 2 million vaccine doses to Hungary in the coming three months, enough for 1 million people. Hungary, with a population of 10 million, received the first 40,000 doses last week.
Orban said so far 264,530 Hungarians - healthcare workers and the most vulnerable elderly - have received at least one shot from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. He said by mid-March all those older than 60 who have registered for a vaccine would be inoculated.
"By early April we could be close to 2 million vaccinated and if we can also use the Chinese vaccine, then the number of those vaccinated and those who have had COVID (and gained immunity) would exceed ... 2 million, that's good," he said.
On Thursday, Orban flagged that coronavirus restrictions could be eased in April after Easter.
Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, told a press briefing that depending on progress with inoculations, some easing was plausible from March 1, with a second phase in early April.
Hungary's drug regulator has also granted emergency use approval to Sinopharm, rather than waiting for the bloc's European Medicines Agency (EMA) to give the go-ahead.
It has also approved the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Gulyas said Sinopharm would ship enough vaccines to inoculate 250,000 people a month from February until April, and ship the remaining stock, enough for 1.75 million people, in May.
(Reporting by Budapest bureau; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Barbara Lewis and Nick Macfie)