Australia Urges Europe to Send AstraZeneca Vaccines to PNG

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Australia is urging the European Union to divert 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine that it’s already contracted to near-neighbor Papua New Guinea, as a wave of coronavirus infections rocks the Pacific region’s most-populous nation.

The formal request to AstraZeneca and European authorities comes just weeks after Italy blocked a shipment of 250,700 doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine to Australia, using a recently introduced EU regulation for the first time.

“I expect and would hope to get cooperation out of Europe for this,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday. “This is not Australia seeking to do this for our own direct benefit, although we’ve contracted them and you would expect them to be supplied.”

Australia Urges Europe to Send AstraZeneca Vaccines to PNG

In the meantime, Australia will send 8,000 vaccine doses from domestic stocks to aid frontline health workers in the country of 9 million people, along with 1 million surgical masks and other medical equipment.

Cases of the virus in PNG almost doubled each week in February. While the World Health Organization said that 96 new cases had been detected in the country on Monday from the previous 24 hours, authorities believe the vast majority of cases aren’t being detected due to the nation’s substandard health facilities.

There are growing fears the virus may spread eastwards from PNG to other Pacific Islands nations, which could have geopolitical implications as China seeks to enhance its influence. While Beijing is believed to have been offering its vaccine in the region, Australia has agreed with its Quad security partners -- including key ally the U.S. -- to ramp up efforts to increase access to Western vaccines in the Indo-Pacific.

“This is a very welcome announcement from the government,” said Jonathan Pryke, who heads research on the Pacific region for the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. “PNG’s health system is on the brink of collapse. The need is immediate and urgent. But vaccines for health workers is not a panacea. PNG has a very tough few months ahead.”

PNG Prime Minister James Marape is expected to announce a national strategy to contain the outbreak on Wednesday, including measures to stop widespread movement, the Post Courier reported. He said he was concerned that the health system wasn’t adequate to cope with a full-blown outbreak.

Australia Urges Europe to Send AstraZeneca Vaccines to PNG

Morrison said the EU deploying AstraZeneca vaccines directly to PNG would “be following through on the very public statements that have been made in the European Union about their commitment to ensure there is no vaccine protectionism and that vaccines do go to those most in need.”

The COVAX facility has indicated it will deliver 588,000 vaccines for PNG by June, Morrison said.

Morrison also announced strict travel restrictions between the nations, with some PNG islands just kilometers away from Australian territory.

“The events we’re seeing there are of great concern,” Morrison said. “The escalation of issues with the virus in PNG presents very real risks to Australia as well.”

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