Australia has called on European officials and AstraZeneca to immediately redirect 1 million COVID-19 vaccines from the nation’s secured stockpile to Papua New Guinea, in response to a “concerning spike” in cases throughout the country.
Papua New Guinea has seen COVID-19 cases jump from under 1,000 in mid-February to 2,475 on March 17. A lack of testing and accurate reporting is concealing the full extent of the outbreak, experts say, with Prime Minister James Marape conceding that the infection rate was now more realistically one in every three or four people, according to the ABC.
On Wednesday, Australia also announced 8,000 vaccine doses from its cache would be donated to Papua New Guinea by next week. The doses will be distributed to the nation’s frontline health workers and be accompanied by 1 million surgical masks and 100,000 gowns, goggles, gloves and hand sanitiser bottles.
Three Australian health specialists will also be deployed to Port Moresby to aid infection control and hospital management.
“Australia is working with Papua New Guinea to support the government’s response to a concerning spike in COVID-19 cases to help save lives and support our closest Pacific neighbour’s health system,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a joint media release. “By helping Papua New Guinea, we are not only helping our Pacific family — we are keeping our nation and our people safe.”
Australia said it will ask the European Union to release one million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea battle a dangerous outbreak that authorities fear could spread to other parts of the region https://t.co/XThTlueRuypic.twitter.com/cH7ZOdlIwT— Reuters (@Reuters) March 17, 2021
Health experts and aid organisations have welcomed the new measures.
Brendan Crabb, the CEO and director of health organisation Burnet Institute, labelled Australia’s support as “true leadership.”
"A major risk if we don’t bring the spread under control is that the virus mutates, just as we have seen in the UK, Brazil and South Africa,” Crabb said in a statement. “We’ve been lucky that the current vaccines have shown efficacy against these new emerging variants, but we can’t say that this will continue to be the case. We must do whatever it takes to fight this virus in Australia, in our region and across the world — because we know this pandemic isn’t over until it’s over for everyone.”
Australia’s latest raft of measures follows a flurry of support for the Pacific nation.
Since the pandemic began a year ago, Australia has pledged $144.7 million to help Papua New Guinea through the crisis and already promised Port Moresby 200,000 vaccine doses, although those are not due to arrive until April, according to the Guardian.
The COVAX Facility — an equitable vaccine distribution partnership between the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness — will likewise deliver 588,000 vaccines for Papua New Guinea by June.
Australia committed $80 million to COVAX back in August to ensure its closest neighbours receive timely vaccines.