By Colin Packham
CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia is considering diverting COVID-19 inoculations from its vaccination programme to Papua New Guinea (PNG) where the coronavirus is threatening to unleash a humanitarian disaster, a government source said on Friday.
PNG is due to get 588,000 doses of vaccine by June under the COVAX initiative to help poorer countries but doubts have arisen about those supplies given new restrictions imposed in producing countries as the virus spreads.
The European Union is implementing tougher vaccine export controls and has yet to respond to an Australian request that it release 1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that has been contracted to go to Australia, to PNG instead, the source told Reuters.
India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca shot made by the Serum Institute of India to meet domestic demand, which will almost certainly delay deliveries to PNG.
There is growing concern that PNG, an island nation of about 10 million people, many living in impoverished, isolated communities, can’t afford to wait.
“We have a humanitarian disaster unfolding in our backyard,” said the source, who is familiar with the thinking of the government on the issue. The source declined to be identified as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Australia is still lobbying the EU for the 1 million doses but considering other options, the source said.
“No decision has yet been made but the government is considering sending vaccines,” said the source, who did not comment on any quantity of doses being discussed.
A government spokesman declined to comment.
PNG, which was administered by Australia before its independence, has recorded more than 4,000 cases of the virus, according to figures released on Thursday.
But Australia says that tally vastly underestimates the extent of the crisis as the Pacific country does not do mass testing.
PNG’s biggest hospitals have reported that as many as 80% are coming back positive and Prime Minister James Marape has said the virus has “broken loose”.
The only vaccines PNG has received are just over 8,000 doses that Australia sent for health workers.
“The Australian government is absolutely right to be pressing the EU on this matter but the situation is too urgent to wait,” said Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid agencies.
The Australian government now faces the politically sensitive question of whether to send PNG doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the early stages of its own vaccine campaign.
Biotech company CSL is due to supply Australia with 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that it has begun producing in Australia to help inoculate the entire population of about 26 million by the end of the year.
Australia has largely managed to get to grips with the coronavirus through lockdowns, distancing, contact tracing and border controls. It has reported just over 29,200 cases and 909 deaths.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Robert Birsel)