CANBERRA – Australia will send COVID-19 vaccines from its own supply to its near-neighbor Papua New Guinea and will ask AstraZeneca to send more to try to contain a concerning wave of infections, Australia’s prime minister said Wednesday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 8,000 AstraZeneca doses would be sent next week for Papua New Guinea’s front-line health workers and he and his Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape would ask AstraZeneca to send another 1 million doses as soon as possible.
The European Union this month blocked a shipment of more than 250,000 doses to Australia because the need for them was not considered great enough in a country largely successful in containing the coronavirus.
“With the support of the PNG government, we are ... making a formal request to AstraZeneca and the European authorities 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.
“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbor, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison added.
Papua New Guinea is a poor country of almost 9 million culturally diverse people who speak more than 800 languages and mostly live in traditional villages. The extent of the pandemic there is difficult to gauge because of a lack testing.
Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said half the women attending hospitals in the capital Port Moresby due to pregnancy were testing positive. Large numbers of front-line health workers were also contracting COVID-19.
“These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community,” Kelly said.
Marape warned this week that one in three or four people in Papua New Guinea could soon be infected.
“If we don’t do a corrective response to this, our health system will be clogged and we won’t be able to sustain it,” Marape told reporters in Port Moresby.
Australia expects Papua New Guinea will receive 588,000 vaccine doses between April and June from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which is shipping vaccines mostly to low- and middle-income countries.
Morrison said Australia had asked the United States, Japan and India to consider what they could do as Quad partners to support Papua New Guinea.
Morrison held a virtual meeting with leaders of the three countries last week as an Indo-Pacific group known as the Quad. They agreed to boost vaccine manufacturing to benefit the entire Indo-Pacific region.
Papua New Guinea is separated from the Australian mainland by an archipelago across the Torres Strait where residents have island-hopped between the two countries for generations.
Morrison announced new flight restrictions between the countries Wednesday. The sea border has been closed due to the pandemic, but is difficult to police. Several recent COVID-19 cases detected in the Australian state closest to Papua New Guinea, Queensland, originated across the border.
Morrison said the Papua New Guinea emergency “presents very real risks to Australia.”
Australia this week began vaccinating people on Australian islands in Torres Strait.
Torres Strait Island Regional Council Mayor Phillemon Mosby said his fellow Australian islanders were becoming increasingly concerned by the threat posed by nearby Papua New Guinea islands.
“An outbreak in our region would be certainly devastating,” said Mosby, a resident of Poruma Island.
Australia has been among the most successful countries in the world in containing community spread of the disease. One of the reasons for Australia’s success is that it does not share a land border with any country.
Its own vaccination program has progressed slower than planned due in part to delays in deliveries of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. More than 200,000 people have been inoculated in a population of 26 million since the Australian rollout began three weeks ago.
The first Australian-manufactured AstraZeneca is expected to roll out from next week, with 50 million doses to be produced in Australia in a year.