By Colin Packham
CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia is considering diverting COVID-19 vaccinations from its vaccination program to Papua New Guinea (PNG), where the coronavirus threatens to unleash humanitarian disaster, a government source said Friday.
PNG will receive 588,000 doses of vaccine by June as part of the COVAX initiative to help poorer countries, but doubts have been raised about those supplies, given new restrictions imposed in producing countries as the virus spreads.
The European Union is enacting tighter export controls for vaccines and has yet to respond to an Australian request to release 1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine contracted to go to Australia, instead of PNG, the source told Reuters.
India has temporarily suspended all major exports of the AstraZeneca shot produced by the Serum Institute of India to meet domestic demand, which will almost certainly slow deliveries to PNG.
There is growing concern that PNG, an island nation of about 10 million people, many of whom live in poor, isolated communities, cannot wait.
“There is a humanitarian disaster taking place in our backyard,” said the source, who is familiar with the government’s thinking on this issue. The source declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Australia is still lobbying the EU for the 1 million doses, but is considering other options, the source said.
“No decision has been taken yet, but the government is considering sending vaccines,” said the source, who did not comment on the amount of doses being discussed.
A government spokesman declined to comment.
PNG, which was administered by Australia before it gained independence, has recorded more than 4,000 cases of the virus, according to figures released Thursday.
But Australia says this number vastly underestimates the magnitude of the crisis, as the Pacific country isn’t conducting massive tests.
PNG’s largest hospitals have reported a staggering 80% positive return and Prime Minister James Marape has said the virus has “broken loose”.
The only vaccines PNG has received are just over 8,000 doses sent by Australia to health professionals.
“The Australian government is quite right to put pressure on the EU on this issue, but the situation is too urgent to wait,” said Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, representing aid organizations.
The Australian government now faces the politically sensitive question of whether to send PNG doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine into the early stages of its own vaccine campaign.
Biotech company CSL will supply Australia with 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine it has begun to produce in Australia to help inoculate the entire population of approximately 26 million by the end of the year.
Australia has largely succeeded in getting a grip on the coronavirus through lockdowns, distancing, contact tracking and border controls. It has reported just over 29,200 cases and 909 deaths.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett; edited by Robert Birsel)