Australia’s prime minister said Wednesday that the country will send COVID-19 vaccines from its own stockpile to Papua New Guinea and will ask AstraZeneca to send more to help contain a worrying wave of infections.
8,000 AstraZeneca doses will be sent to Papua New Guinea’s front-line health workers next week, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape will ask AstraZeneca to send another 1 million doses as soon as possible.
The European Union recently blocked a shipment of more than 250,000 coronavirus vaccines to Australia, citing a lack of need in a country that has largely succeeded in containing the virus.
“We are… making a formal request to AstraZeneca and the European authorities, with the support of the PNG government, to access 1 million doses of our contracted supplies of AstraZeneca not for Australia, but for PNG, a developing country in desperate need of these vaccines,” Morrison told reporters.
“They’ve signed a contract with us. We’ve paid for them, and we’d like to see them arrive here so we can help our neighbor, PNG, with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison added.
Papua New Guinea is a poor country with a population of nearly 9 million people who speak over 800 languages and live mostly in traditional villages. Due to a lack of testing, determining the extent of the pandemic is difficult.
Half of the women visiting hospitals in the capital, Port Moresby, for pregnancy tests positive, according to Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. COVID-19 was also infecting a large number of front-line health workers.
“These are all signs that the community is dealing with a major epidemic,” Kelly said.
This week, Marape warned that one in every three or four people in Papua New Guinea could be infected soon.
“If we do nothing, our health system will become clogged, and we will not be able to sustain it,” Marape told reporters in Port Moresby.
Between April and June, Australia expects Papua New Guinea to receive 588,000 vaccine doses from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which ships vaccines primarily to low- and middle-income countries.
Australia had asked the US, Japan, and India to consider what they could do as Quad partners to help Papua New Guinea, according to Morrison.
Last week, Morrison held a virtual meeting with the leaders of the three countries as part of the Quad, an Indo-Pacific community. They decided to increase vaccine production for the entire Indo-Pacific region’s benefit.
An archipelago across the Torres Strait divides Papua New Guinea from the Australian mainland, and people have been island-hopping between the two countries for decades.
On Wednesday, Morrison announced new flight restrictions between the two countries. Owing to the pandemic, the sea border has been closed, but it is difficult to police. Several latest COVID-19 cases discovered in Queensland, Australia’s state closest to Papua New Guinea, emerged on the other side of the border.
The Papua New Guinea crisis, Morrison said, “poses very real risks to Australia.”
People on Australian islands in the Torres Strait are being vaccinated beginning this week.
Mayor Phillemon Mosby of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council said his fellow Australian islanders were increasingly worried about the danger posed by nearby Papua New Guinea islands.
“An outbreak in our area would be devastating,” said Mosby, a Poruma Island resident.
Australia has been one of the most effective countries in the world at preventing disease transmission in the population. The fact that Australia has no land borders with any other nation is one of the reasons for its prosperity.
Its own vaccination program has taken longer than anticipated, owing in part to delays in vaccine deliveries from AstraZeneca and Pfizer. After the Australian rollout started three weeks ago, more than 200,000 people have been inoculated out of a population of 26 million.
The first AstraZeneca to be manufactured in Australia is scheduled to go on sale next week, with 50 million doses produced in a year.