Politics and medicine: The case of Hungary

Although Hungary, as opposed to many other countries including the United States, has ample supplies of the H1N1 vaccine, only about 10% of the population has been inoculated to date. I wrote about the hysteria over the flu vaccination on October 10, 2009. Unfortunately, although the hysteria has subsided somewhat, it's far from over.

In the last couple of weeks the political battle between the government and the opposition has focused on the ownership of Omninvest Kft., the company that has been the sole supplier of flu vaccines in Hungary for a number of years. While that battle rages on, sixteen people have lost their lives due to a H1N1 viral infection. None of them had been vaccinated. Among the recent victims was a young pregnant woman and her unborn baby whom the doctors couldn't save.

Here is what I managed to find out about the company. Omninvest Vaccine Manufacturing, Researching and Trading Ltd. was founded in 1991. Their "mission is to share [their] expertise and innovations to successfully fight different influenza-related illnesses." Although the company was established in 1991, they claim "four decades of experience."

Omninvest Kft. has also moved into stem cell therapy. In May 2003 Omninvest together with the University of Debrecen founded the Cell Therapy Laboratory of the Medical and Health Science Center at the University of Debrecen. Their "mission is to incorporate state-of-the art stem cell therapies into national clinical practices." The company claims that it finished clinical trials enabling them to use stem cell therapies following infarction and severe peripheral arterial disorder. A Scientific Board consisting of six M.D's who are also armed with Ph.D's supervises the activities of the Cell Therapy Laboratory. Three of them are members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. All that seems perfectly legitimate, but who is "behind" Omninvest remains a mystery.

Ervin Demeter, former minister in charge of national security in the second half of the Orbán government, has been badgering the government for details on the people behind Omninvest. As if the ownership of a company had much to do with the quality of the product. Demeter decided to investigate on his own and announced that it took him only two telephone calls and one and a half hours of work to find out that behind Omninvest  is a company called A.J.K. Group registered in Cyprus, whose directors are Marios Vardas and Andreas Karapatakis. Demeter's research wasn't very thorough and left him a big foggy; in fact, he wasn't quite sure whether these names were real or fictitious. His research could have been facilitated by a quick look at the company's website. Assuming that it is not a fabrication (and there's no reason to think it is), we learn there that Karapatakis is the chairman and one of the five members of the partnership board "responsible for all strategic issues of the Group." All five partners were born in Cyprus. Three were educated in the United States, one in the U.K., and one in Hungary. 

Demeter, having found only two of five current partners, came out with his big gun: there was a third, unnamed man who was most likely a Hungarian. He was an employee of the III/III section of the secret service that was responsible for information gathering within Hungary during the Kádár regime. Mind you, Demeter admitted that this unnamed man died three years ago. I should point out that the partnership board is not exactly made up of geriatrics. The chairman was born in 1964, the vice chairman (Yiannakis Papatheodorou, who got his B.Sc. in finance in Hungary and seems to be quite alive) in 1963, and the other three members in 1972, 1973, and 1980.

Demeter's story is all too pat: how handy that a III/III agent is behind Omninvest, a company that is being accused of all sorts of unsavory if not illegal activities. Demeter is trying to make a national security question out of Omninvest's ownership. Theoretically, I guess, one could make the case that relying on only one manufacturer of flu vaccines poses a certain risk to the population, but Omninvest has been producing vaccines year after year to everybody's satisfaction. It is clear that the whole affair has been created for political purposes.

The political battle could be dismissed as insignificant if it didn't have an adverse effect on Hungarians' willingness to be vaccinated. (I found a good cover of HVG, a weekly known for its witty covers, that portrays the situation well.Virusveszely) And unfortunately the virus seems to be a very potent one. The first victims were older people either had compromised immune systems or who suffered some other serious illnesses. However, lately perfectly healthy young people have died of the H1N1 influenza within a couple of days. The young pregnant woman was already in great trouble when she was taken to the hospital belonging to the Semmelweis Medical School of Budapest. First, the virus attacked her lungs and later her kidney and heart. The young man who died only a few hours later in Zalaegerszeg first developed pneumonia and later the virus attacked his kidney. There is another young pregnant woman who is also in very bad shape. And yet Endre Czeizel today told József Orosz on Kontra (Klub Rádió) that among his pregnant patients who visited him in the last few days there were still several whose family doctor or obstetrician had told them not to get vaccinated because the vaccine poses dangers to them and to their fetuses. According to Czeizel there is absolutely no danger, and the vaccination of the mother has the added benefit of protecting the newborn against the H1N1 virus for his/her first six months of life.

Let's hope that sanity will return. In the meantime I'm looking forward to the details of the mysterious III/III agent behind Omninvest and the vaccines. It should be quite a tale!


  1. The way this thing has been politicized is obscene. A friend of ours told how, at the school of her children, there is a clear distinction: kids of so-called left wing and liberal parents have been vaccinated, children of so-called right-wing parents have not, and that is the way people talk about it. It is sick and shows a true Balkan mentality. And it is Fidesz, again, who is to blame for politicizing this issue, which is totally irresponsible.
    That having been said, I have never understood how it is possible that companies like Omnivest can operate without the real identity of its owners being known. Surely, full transparancy of ownership should be a prerequisite for getting government grants, winning government tenders and doing business with government institutions, certainly where public health is concerned, but also with media (who really owns Hir TV, Info radio etc.), energy, motorway building etc. But that seems to be not out of the ordinary in Hungary. As it is, one cannot but suspect that some shady business is going on.

  2. Some Canadian provinces have stopped using a particular batch of the H1N1 flu vaccine after six people experienced severe allergic reactions, the country’s health agency said on Monday.
    The Public Health Agency of Canada and vaccine manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline Plc have asked the governments of Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island — nearly half the country’s 13 provinces and territories — to stop using a batch of 172,000 doses.
    Six allergic reactions from that size of a batch is a higher percentage than usual, said a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency. Overall, the number of severe allergic reactions following H1N1 vaccinations is less than 1 per 100,000 doses, the norm for other vaccines.
    All six people who experienced the allergic reactions have recovered, the spokeswoman said.
    Manitoba received 63,000 doses of the vaccine batch and has only 930 left, a spokeswoman for the provincial health department said. Health officials have now placed all the remaining doses in storage.

  3. Open your eyes indeed.
    What I find in these articles is a lot of ‘possible’, ‘unconfirmed’ and ‘suspected’, but no solid scientific proof against any of these vaccins (the Hungarian one is different from the ones used in Sweden or Canada) which have all been tested thoroughly.
    There are always – year in year out – and all over the world people dying of the flu (even of the normal seasonal flu). Also, people can be dying of many related and unrelated causes, so if every now and then someone dies after having had the vaccin, that doesn’t say that the vaccin caused that. And yes, it is entirely possible that a certain batch of vaccins is contaminated somewhere because it hasn’t been handled well. That, of course, doesn’t make vaccins in itself dangerous.
    Being afraid of vaccination is just hysteria. But if you don’t want the vaccin, please yourself.

  4. Courtesy of MedIQ blog (in Hungarian and generally excellent mediq.blog.hu/ ) there is plenty of convincing information with clear comparisons of risks etc… here: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2009/is-the-h1n1-swine-flu-vaccine-safe/
    Part of this was used by the BBC as an illustration of good examples of clear visual illustrations of statistical and risk data.
    This form of data is very hard for average people to understand. Even university educated people have real problems getting to grips with the very simplest of statistical ideas, so we can hardly expect it of the mass public. Particularly when journalist standards are so low.
    I have seen very little in the way of information that an average person would be able to easily understand. Far too much is far too wordy. Far too much is far too opinion based, rather than fact based.
    Like it or not, the government is responsible for effectively informing the public about risks and they are responsible to not counter-balancing the distorted ignorance and irresponsible scaremongering of Fidesz and Jobbik.
    n.b. Mario is a creature that goes under the name of ‘Law’ on the politics.hu website. He and reality have a strained relationship, though I believe reality is trying its best to work out the problems, unfortunately Law is unwilling to take part in the therapy.

  5. Dear Eva,
    I find you conclusion that the public do not trust the vaccine because of the opposition quite amusing. With approval ratings as low as the incumbent government’s, as evidenced by the by-elections about a week ago (the analysis of which I’ve yet to see on this blog) it’s hard to imagine anyone trusting their word, and that of their cronies (Czeizel Endre, the quack geneticist?) even if there were no opposition politicians to be found in Hungary at all.
    There is ample reason not to trust Omninvest, if for nothing more that it is a “Benedict Arnold company” as John Kerry woudl put it. It has received HUF 15bn in the past decade for development purposes, the results of which are mixed at best.A good, fact-based opinion column can be found here:
    About the vaccine: Omninvest currently has problems with meeting even basic GMP criteria, which can be overlooked at OGYI for political reasons, but has prevented this excellent vaccine from being even submitted for approval for other countries, such as Slovakia. This is mighty strange, considering the vaccine is absolutely safe, thus getting it FDA or EMEA approval shoudl be a breeze. And, az Eva kindly pointed out, there is a vast shortage of H1N1 vaccines in the US and all over the world. How odd Omninvest should not try to capitalize on this? I could tell you about “friends” who told me ( as this seems to be par for referencing sources on this blog) but two people have already “resigned” over leaked comments from OGYI.
    the fact that the vaccine comes in packaging without an expiration date ( check it out- it should not be sold in Pharmacies under current regulations) further reinforces the point that something’s amiss.
    As for the statistics gurus, who like to tout numbers:
    Working with numbers referenced by vandorlo, you are half as likely to get H1N1 than the seasonal flu, you are much less likely to be hospitalized, and much less likely to die. Interestingly, seasonal flu shots have not been hyped nearly as much as this wonderful product, though they prevent a condition far more likely to kill you.
    Without sounding cynical, can anyone tell me why?
    Finally, a personal thought, one that the scientifically educated commenters can maybe relate to:
    Why is this blog called the Hungarian spectrum? It seems to only broadcast one single wavelength?

  6. Despite the politics, many of the FIDESZ people have been reported to have gotten the vaccine, including Mikola.
    In truth and regardless, the strain of H1N1 that has hit children in Bp (including my own) does not seem to be particularly virulent.

  7. Politics of Hungary takes place in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic republic, whereby the Prime Minister of Hungary is the head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and parliament. The party system is dominated by the social democratic Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the conservative Fidesz.

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