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Hundreds Test Negative After Coming in Contact with Infected Hungarian Minister

Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto and Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn during the inaugural ceremony of Hungary's embassy office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 03, 2020. (Facebook Page: Peter Szijjarto)

The Health Ministry reported on Thursday that hundreds of Cambodian officials and people who came in contact with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, have tested negative.

Hungarian foreign affairs and trade minister Peter Szijjarto was declared positive with coronavirus on arrival in Thailand on Wednesday, after a slew of quick meetings on Tuesday with senior Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen -- who met Szijjarto on Tuesday -- said on Wednesday that he, First Lady Bun Rany, his drivers, and bodyguards had tested negative for the virus on Wednesday and were self-isolating at home. Hun Sen will miss the Independence Day celebrations next Monday and other virtual summits he was scheduled to attend.

Hungary's state-run news agency MTI and the Cambodian Foreign Ministry confirmed Szijjarto's positive test was detected upon his arrival in Bangkok Tuesday evening. In a Facebook post, Szijjarto said he was staying in a hospital in Bangkok and would fly home as early as Wednesday evening -- cutting short his working visit to Thailand.

In an announcement on Thursday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said 628 people had been contact-traced and tested for COVID-19 as of Wednesday night and that all the results had returned negative.

“The ministry is searching for more people and will let the public know about the result of tests,” read the announcement.

Several reporters who covered the event with the Hungarian Foreign Minister were also tested for COVID-19.

A local reporter, 37, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he wasn’t in close contact with the Hungarian minister but had been tested and was negative for the coronavirus.

“Even if we think the risk of infection is not high, we need to test to make sure that we are not infected so that we have high confidence and no worries,” he said.

Cambodia has reported and treated 292 positive cases of the virus, with six of those patients still being treated in the hospital. The country has reported zero COVID-19 deaths.

Szijjarto visited Cambodia to attend the inaugural ceremony of the Hungarian diplomatic representative office in Phnom Penh – twenty-five years after Budapest decided to shut down its embassy in the Cambodian capital.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, left, talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Pool Photo via AP)
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, left, talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Pool Photo via AP)

The Hungarian top diplomat also signed several economic deals with Cambodian government officials, increasing cooperation between Hun Sen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of a few authoritarian leaders in Europe.

In Phnom Penh, the foreign ministry said mass testing and self-isolation were mandatory for "leaders and officials" who came in close contact with Szijjarto, who visited several government agencies in the Cambodian capital.

The Health Ministry in Cambodia convened an "emergency" meeting late Wednesday afternoon in response to the incident, said Yuok Sambath, a secretary of state at the ministry, declining to comment further.

Szijjarto had meetings with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak, National Assembly lawmaker Suos Yara, and the central bank’s deputy governor, Chea Serey.

Each meeting was attended by multiple officials and journalists, where Szijjarto was seen not wearing a mask all the time.

It was unclear how and when Szijjarto got infected with the virus, but both Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mate Paczolay and Cambodian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Szijjarto tested negative ahead of his departure to Cambodia.

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said he rushed back to Phnom Penh on Wednesday upon being informed by government officials.

“As soon as I was informed, I started doing what’s needed by enforcing self-quarantine,” Sakhon told VOA Khmer while departing Pursat province, where he attended an event Wednesday.

Chea Serey wrote on her social media page that she was “in a very close contact” with the Hungarian foreign minister, as she guided him through the Srey Icanavarman Museum near Wat Phnom.

“In the meantime, my entire household will stay in quarantine starting this afternoon... until we no longer pose a risk to public health,” Chea Serey said. “Our staff at the museum who were in close contact were also asked to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their family and the public.”

Peter Szijjarto became the third foreign dignitaries to visit Cambodia since the COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March. Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers had visited Phnom Penh in August and October, respectively.