Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) battle a dangerous outbreak, a request that is likely to inflame tensions over vaccine supplies.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the vaccines were contracted to Australia but were badly needed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a short boat ride from Australian territory.
“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbour, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbours. They’re our partners… This is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests.”
Australia will donate 8,000 locally produced COVID-19 vaccines to PNG as an immediate response to the outbreak, and would make a million doses available as soon as they arrived from Europe, he said.
The request is likely to raise tensions with the European Union after Brussels, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia this month, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.
It was the first refusal of an export request since the EU established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.
PNG recorded 82 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, but Australia’s chief health officer said that figure was likely as “a major underestimate”. PNG has officially recorded just 2,000 cases since the pandemic begun.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape on Tuesday said COVID-19 had “broken loose” and urged people to avoid unnecessary travel.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said PNG has little infrastructure to conduct mass testing, and the few that were being done were showing alarming results.
“When people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.
Morrison warned an “uncontrolled” outbreak in PNG could produce a new variant of the virus.
“That would be not only a major problem for PNG but also for us and the region,” Morrison said.
Canberra will also suspend all travel to and from PNG from Wednesday midnight, he added.
A senior Australian government source said the EU had justified the blocking of the shipment to Australia earlier this month because Canberra was so successful in containing the spread of the virus, but that rationale would not hold with PNG.
Aid agencies echoed the desperate need for vaccines in the impoverished country of almost nine million people.
“PNG needs a fighting chance to beat this, and frontline doctors and nurses could be the difference between keeping this under control or utter catastrophe for PNG’s health system,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development – an industry body representing Australian aid agencies.
The Australian government source said Canberra would lodge its request with the EU this week and an answer was likely within days. He declined to be named as he is not authorised to talk to media on the subject.