Australia & PNG’s unfolding Covid disaster
08 April 2021
PROF JOHN DWYER
| Pearls & Irritations | Edited
SYDNEY - Helping Papua New Guinea with its disastrous Covid outbreak is not pure altruism on our part.
The unbridled, indeed raging, pandemic, known to have infected 100,000 already and likely to have infected a million more within a week or so, provides a perfect ‘incubator’ for wild type more infectious variants of the Covid to develop.
We need to help our close neighbour in a way that prevents transmission of the PNG variant spilling into Australia.
PNG has about nine million people and some 500 doctors. Already the few hospitals in the country are at breaking point, so heavy is the demand for Covid care.
Two weeks ago the Morrison government laid out its plan to help fight the pandemic. We sent 8,000 doses of the Astra/Zeneca vaccine to be used to immunise front line workers. We also sent three ‘Hazmat’ specialists to assess the situation.
As these initiatives alone represent little more than tokenism, what was to be the more substantial offering. How about a million doses of the vaccine?
For many months PNG has had a generous offer on the table from China. Two Chinese vaccines are being used in some 69 developing countries.
China has said that to “support each other’s core interests” it would supply the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, both of which work well in stopping fatal consequences developing after a SARS infection.
PNG should immediately accept any donations of vaccines. Why haven’t they?
A few months ago China offered the vaccines. At the time, government spokesperson, acting foreign minister Rainbo Paita thanked China but later said:
“It was made in the context of the Chinese government offering their help to fight the coronavirus pandemic when PNG was first hit with active cases.
“I only said that we appreciate China’s assistance, just the same as we appreciate other development partners and our bilateral partners or other countries where we have strong relationships with.”
Then PNG prime minister James Marape announced the government will be investing millions of dollars in a local company for the development of an unknown Covid-19 treatment.
Despite some backlash, Mr Marape defended the decision and said there was nothing “illegal or improper” about the government’s engagement with the newly founded Niugini BioMed.
The company said it was “highly confident” that it had discovered a new treatment for Covid-19 after “scanning and analysing” 30,000 drugs from around the world.
It was a ridiculous decision to delay vaccination efforts while this start-up company sought a cure.
Then there emerged a plan, possibly linked to vaccine donations, in which a Chinese company has put forward a multi-billion-dollar plan to build a new city on the Papua New Guinean island of Daru, which sits on the nation’s sea border with Australia.
The proposal for the New Daru City includes an industrial zone, seaport, business and commercial zone over a 100-square-kilometre area. Australia is not happy with such a proposal.
Whatever the state of play is with these proposals they are doing nothing to address the enormous potential for suffering and death from Covid-19 in PNG.
Australia now has CSL making between 800,000 and a million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine weekly.
Truth is that, while we are hearing many complaints about the slowness of the rollout of vaccination in Australia, even with the occasional Covid ‘hot spot’, our situation remains enviable while PNG’s is perilous.
We have a remarkable history of restricting Covid infections to manageable levels without a vaccine.
Not without much social and financial stress of course, but we are among the top ten countries in the world to have saved its population from Covid disasters.
The point is that we can and should divert some of our weekly production of the AstraZeneca vaccine to PNG, even though that will slow down our timetable for having all Australians immunised.
However, there is another major problem that must be addressed with PNG, namely the massively difficult task of delivering the vaccine to people living in the more remote areas of the country.
Logistics may well need a lot of helicopters carrying vaccines and skilled nurses to administer them, along with local leaders who would need to encourage people to accept vaccination.
The initiatives are urgent and as I see it, a real test of our claimed genuine commitment to having our rich developed nation help our nearest developing nation in a time of great need.
John Dwyer is an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of NSW and the founder of the Australian Healthcare Reform Alliance
I am not a pharmacologist but my opinion is that both Chinese vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, and the AstraZeneca vaccine will help PNG.
We can't compare them confirming which ones are better and which are not because we haven't used them.
We don't have to compare Chinese made vaccines with other countries especially USA because they have already stabilised Covid-19 from spreading while other countries are suffering more. The Chinese have the accumulated knowledge and technology to develop vaccines.
When we look at the confirmed cases and deaths in the USA alone, it's far worse than China. That shows the Chinese made vaccines are better when we can get assistance from them.
We seemed to have a fixed false belief that everything made in China is fake or of poor quality and we have been told to do away with them. I think China is equally important to us because we trade with them is much easier than other countries.
A couple of clarifying points. (1) The Chinese vaccines are safe but not as effective as vaccines like AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna. (2) Very few countries, including the USA, have stopped Covid-19 and its variants from spreading. (3) If a vaccine works for people in other countries, it will work in PNG - we are all humans; there is no PNG exceptionalism. Link to a relevant article on vaccine effectiveness in the British Medical Journal below - KJ
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 08 April 2021 at 06:22 PM
Though it is true many developing countries have accepted Chinese or Russian vaccines, this is not recommended. Chinese and Russian vaccine donations always come with political strings attached.
Moreover, these vaccines are unsafe and for this reason not approved in the EU or USA. They have not undergone phase 3 testing on thousands of people, rather being tested on a few dozen.
Of the approved vaccines, the Janssen vaccine is probably the most suitable, because it requires only one shot and no extreme refrigeration.
Astra Zeneca is second best, but regrettably unwarranted questions about its safety have been raised.
The current lack of any movement to get vaccines in arms is due to the peculiar way PNG politics works. It will result in many preventable deaths.
In the past weeks, three of my former colleagues at UNITECH passed away from Covid-19.
Posted by: Albert Schram | 08 April 2021 at 04:32 PM