Calls for PNG to take Chinese vaccines to tackle outbreak
Two of Australia’s top infectious disease and immunology experts say Papua New Guinea should take up the offer of Chinese-made vaccines if they are safe, as Europe threatens to withhold vaccine deliveries and PNG teeters on the edge of a COVID-19 disaster.
China has made repeated overtures to Papua New Guinea in recent months, offering to send vaccines to the country to “support each other’s core interests”. China’s Foreign Ministry said it has supplied the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to 69 countries including, Cambodia, Serbia and Indonesia.
Urging Australia and the West to put politics aside for the sake of global health, Sydney University professor Robert Booy and ANU professor Peter Collignon said PNG should take whatever vaccines it could secure.
Medical staff of Papua New Guinea’s Defense Force are being trained to deal with the nation’s COVID outbreak. Credit:WHO/Papua New Guinea
“The Chinese vaccines are becoming better understood and the information coming out suggests that they are safe and effective,” said Booy, the former head of clinical research at the National Centre for Immunisation.
“Provided the confirmation of their safety by the WHO, their use in south-east Asia and the Pacific seems reasonable to me.”
Said Collignon, a committee advisor to the World Health Organisation: “If China has a good vaccine that is quality assured, it is silly not to allow that vaccine to be rolled out”.
The intervention from the two Australian experts comes after PNG doctors reported the hospital system was at breaking point, with wards overwhelmed by patients and scores of healthcare workers infected with the virus. Miner Ok Tedi announced it was suspending its operations at its $1 billion mine on Thursday due to the outbreak to “protect its workforce, communities and operation”.
Australia’s former ambassador to PNG, Ian Kemish, said: “it’s like a dam has been breached”.
“Health facilities are close to being overwhelmed in Port Moresby, medical staff are being struck down and 50 per cent of one batch of PNG swabs tested in Brisbane last week were positive,” he said in comments first published by The Conversation on Thursday.
But the adjunct professor at the University of Queensland added that he still believed Australia was the only nation capable of aiding the distribution of vaccines to the broader population in Australia’s closest neighbour.
“I expect China’s approach would involve a narrower focus on the political elite,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “Historically, China has taken a narrow and opportunistic approach in PNG and has not put in the sustained effort required in a real partnership.”
Operations have bene suspended at PNG’s Ok Tedi copper and gold mine to protect the safety of its staff.
Booy said the World Health Organisation’s COVAX vaccine sharing program had limited ability to direct vaccines where they were needed.
“It is limited to waving its arms and pointing at agreements that countries have made and hoping that countries respect those agreements.”
COVAX, which is expected to start delivering vaccine doses to PNG by May, was contacted for comment.
Booy said the ongoing outbreak in PNG posed a threat to Australia’s own coronavirus containment efforts.
“There is free traffic and trade across northern Australia and it is not very easily controlled,” he said.
The global COVID vaccine rollout has been plagued by geopolitical tensions between China and Europe and the US, doubts about the efficacy of both the Chinese vaccines and British-designed AstraZeneca and now claims of vaccine protectionism in Europe.
Australia called on Wednesday for 1 million doses it has ordered of the European-made AstraZeneca to be redirected to PNG. The delivery would be on top of 8000 locally produced doses being rushed to Port Moresby and a longer-term one-billion dose commitment by the Quad alliance with the US, Japan and India to deliver vaccines to Asia and the Pacific.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday threatened to take over AstraZeneca’s factories, fuelling doubts that the 1 million doses could be available to reach PNG in time. The continent is still battling waves of infection and European leaders have accused the company of only delivering a third of its production targets.
“We are in the crisis of the century,” said von der Leyen. “I’m not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne wrote to their European counterparts on Wednesday. Hunt said on Thursday he had also spoken with the global head of AstraZeneca.
“[We] have all written requesting that given that this is a humanitarian disaster, potentially, related to COVID in a developing nation, that deep humanity should see these vaccines released,” said Hunt. “We are willing to forgo those million from Australia, in order to assign them to PNG.”
Over the past week, Chinese state media has been peppered with images of world leaders being inoculated as it ramps up its vaccine diplomacy drive across South America, Africa and south-east Asia. Pakistan President Arif Alvi was the latest to receive the Sinopharm jab on Wednesday.
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