Australia said on Wednesday it would ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) fight the deadly outbreak, a request that could further escalate the vaccine crisis.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the vaccine was given to Australia but was much needed to contain an increase in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a boat ride from Australia.
“We have given them contracts. We have paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so that we can support our closest neighbor, PNG, to meet their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“They are our family, they are our friends. They are our neighbors. They are our partners … This benefits us in Australia, and it loves our provinces.”
Australia will offer Covid-19 PNG locally produced vaccines as a quick response to the outbreak, and will provide one million doses as soon as it arrives from Europe, he said.
The request is likely to create controversy with the European Union after Brussels, at the request of Italy, blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia this month, citing a shortage of vaccines in Europe.
It was the first denial of an export request since the EU established a system to monitor the flow of vaccines in late January.
PNG recorded 97 new cases in Covid-19 on Tuesday, but an Australian health official said the figure was “very serious”. PNG has officially recorded only 2,000 cases since the epidemic began.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape on Tuesday called the Covid-19 “broken” and urged people to avoid unnecessary travel.
Australian Medical Officer Paul Kelly said PNG had a number of infrastructure to conduct mass screening, and a few of the results showed alarming results.
“By the time people were admitted to a hospital in Port Moresby, half of the women who were not due to pregnancy were healthy,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.
Morrison warned that “uncontrolled” outbreaks in PNG could expose new strains of the virus.
“That would not only be a big problem for PNG but also for us and the region,” Morrison said.
Canberra will also suspend all departures and return to PNG from midnight on Wednesday, he added.
A senior source in the Australian government said the EU had pardoned the ban on exports to Australia earlier this month because Canberra had been very successful in containing the spread of the virus, but that sounded unlikely to co-operate with PNG.
Aid agencies have responded to the great need for vaccination in a poor country of nearly nine million people.
“PNG needs an opportunity to fight and overcome this, and leading doctors and nurses can be the difference between controlling this or a major PNG health crisis,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development. -Australia.
An Australian government source said Canberra will submit its application to the EU this week and the response is likely to be within days. He declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.