| The Guardian | Judith Nielson Institute
PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinea has approved nearly K10.2 million from its threadbare budget for an as-yet-unidentified Covid-19 treatment – allocating the money to an unknown biomedical company that was formed in August.
Prime minister James Marape, has insisted the national executive council had not completed its approval process to engage a PNG company to find a treatment, but leaked cabinet documents appear to show the K10.2 being awarded to Niugini BioMed Ltd for research into discovering a new treatment for Covid-19 infections from existing drugs.
The cabinet submission, splashed on the front page of a national newspaper, claimed a University of Papua New Guinea team had “scanned and analysed” 30,000 known drugs worldwide to identify 10 potential treatments.
“The team is highly confident this discovery could be potentially used as a treatment for Covid-19 infections,” the submission, dated 20 October, says.
The submission, signed by Marape, “directs ministers, treasury and finance to make available K10.2 million immediately for the procurement of Covid-19 drugs, commencement of treatment on Covid-19 patients in the country”.
It also directs the national department of health to establish a collaboration with Niugini BioMed “to immediately run clinical treatment and trials”.
While treatment of Covid-19 has improved globally since the outbreak of the pandemic, lowering death rates, there is no vaccine for the virus. Several potential vaccines are undergoing trial internationally.
Marape said that there was “nothing illegal or improper” about the government engaging PNG chemists, biologists and doctors to research possible vaccines for Covid-19.
Marape said: “We have young and competent PNG scientists, who have presented their case to the Covid-19 controller and our medical and science community that they may be on to something big.
“It may be true, or vice-versa, but I am not a prime minister to kill ingenuity, research, science and study. We are a nation of huge biodiversity … our ancestors lived with malaria, snake bites and all manner of tropical diseases.
“I am certain that we can find new medicines amidst all this biodiversity in our blessed land.”
“To my critics; don’t think I am stupid. I know exactly what I want to do for my country.”
Health minister Sir Puka Temu told the Guardian he supported the submission, arguing PNG had not spent enough money researching treatments for the coronavirus.
He said his department would ensure BioMed’s research “will be done properly, [and] meets global scientific research standards”.
Devastated by Covid-19 shutdowns PNG’s budget is under intense pressure.
The government is seeking a K350 million top-up to an emergency loan of more than one trillion kina from Australia last year, and still has unpaid liabilities, including a massive superannuation bill, of more than K2.8 million.
PNG’s opposition leader, Belden Namah, said it was irresponsible of cabinet – and risked a “total waste of funds” – to back a brand-new company with no previous records of drug research and production to research a cure for coronavirus.
Niugini BioMed chairman Dr Bomai Kerenga argued individual countries must fend for themselves against the Covid-19 pandemic, and PNG was no exception.
“For this reason, we have mobilised a team of highly qualified and talented medical doctors and scientists to research for Covid-19 cure among the generic drugs.”
He said the company had been established in August to protect its research and intellectual property, and had obtained the genomic data of the coronavirus.
“We need this information to develop vaccine and identify drugs to repurpose for treatment against Covid-19.”
PNG has recorded just 589 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with seven deaths. But the actual rate of infection is likely far higher, with dangerously low rates of testing across the country.