A COVID outbreak exploding in Papua New Guinea has prompted an emergency offer of assistance from Australia, with vaccines, masks and gowns being sent to help the developing nation on the brink of crisis.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would “gift” 8000 of our own doses of vaccine to the country of nearly nine million.
It will also ask for a million of our foreign-made doses – which are held up in Europe due to export controls – to be immediately released and redirected to PNG.
“I expect and would hope to get the co-operation out of Europe for this,” Mr Morrison said in Canberra on Wednesday.
“The Pacific community has done such an extraordinary job to substantively keep their islands free of COVID-19 … But we’ve known that that challenge was always going to be too great for Papua New Guinea as time went on. And that is proving to be the case now.”
The worsening outbreak, described by Health Minister Greg Hunt as a “clear and present danger”, is ringing alarm bells in Canberra after half of the virus tests in some regions came back positive.
The Morrison government has been under pressure to urgently send supplies and vaccines to PNG, to ease pressure on its health system and alleviate the potential for its outbreak to directly threaten Australia.
On Wednesday, the PM said the outbreak represented a “very real risk” to Australia.
To help stop infected people travelling between the two countries, flights will be further restricted two and from PNG. That will include temporarily halting fly-in, fly-out workers’ arrangements.
An AUSMAT medical team will be sent to PNG to assist with “critical planning” for the country’s healthcare response, with further clinical teams to follow. Mr Morrison said he had also asked the US, India and Japan to step in and help.
Mr Morrison said Australia was also “gifting essential PPE” – including one million surgical masks, 100,000 surgical gowns, 100,000 sets of goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves, and 200 ventilators – to its northern neighbour.
The vaccines will “fill a critical gap” until PNG gets its own contracted vaccine doses from the COVAX supplier, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said. The doses will be prioritised for frontline health workers.
Despite the big-ticket announcement from Mr Morrison – in a formal announcement attend by Senator Payne, Pacific Minister Zed Seselja, and chief medical officer Paul Kelly – the 8000 doses represents just 0.6 per cent of the 1.3 million shots of vaccine currently in Australia.
It’s also just 0.015 per cent of the total 53.8 million AstraZeneca doses that Australia has contracted.
Australia has contracts for more than 150 million doses of vaccines across AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novavax and the COVAX facility. The government has long said that it planned to direct some to Pacific nations.
Mr Morrison said Australia had previously contributed $80 million to COVAX to help developing nations access vaccines, and $60 million directly to PNG.
Instead of sending more of Australia’s guarantee supplies, such as from the one million doses of AstraZeneca that will roll off production lines each week at Melbourne’s CSL facility from March 22, Mr Morrison said he was asking AstraZeneca to release more of our European-made doses directly to PNG.
Australia has contracts to produce 50 million doses at CSL, and to receive 3.8 million doses made overseas.
However, export controls in Europe have meant Australia has received just 700,000 doses from overseas.
Health department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy said last week the government was not counting on receiving any more.
“We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbour, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Mr Morrison said.
“This is not Australia seeking to do this for our own direct benefit, although we’ve contracted them and you would expect them to be supplied.”
Mr Morrison defended the amount of help offered to PNG, saying COVAX would deliver nearly 590,000 vaccines to the nation by June.
According to the World Bank, PNG had a population of 8.77 million in 2019.
“They’re our family. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbours. They’re our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand
with them,” Mr Morrison said.
Professor Kelly said medical experts were concerned about potential new COVID variants developing on our doorstep, if the PNG outbreak was allowed to bloom uncontrolled.
“These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community. That’s what’s happening in PNG. We are concerned about that because an uncontrolled pandemic is how variants of concern come to light,” he said.
“That would be not only a major problem for PNG but also for us and the region, if there was a PNG strain to develop.”