Health officials in Papua New Guinea are bracing for a wave of coronavirus patients as Australia's nearest neighbour battles with a surge in cases.
Officials have been working to bolster the capacity of a hospital in the Port Moresby capital as frontline workers brace for the worst amid rising infection rates.
In the latest figures, 351 new cases were reported on Tuesday, taking the total number of cases during the pandemic to more than 4,000 – although due to very low testing rates, the true number is thought to be much larger.
The official death toll stands at 39 in PNG.
Port Moresby based journalist Rebecca Kuku shared an image early on Thursday morning showing a gymnasium full of beds ready for patient overflow – a scene which has played out in countries around the world in the past year.
A number of Australians in Queensland hotel quarantine in recent weeks have tested positive after returning from PNG, prompting concerns over the potential consequences of a virus mutation emerging on our doorstep.
Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said last week there was no indication of a PNG variant emerging yet, but such an event would "not only be a major problem for PNG but also for us and the region".
However, Queensland Health is now investigating the possible emergence of a Covid variant in the country, The Australian reported Thursday.
Australia may send extra vaccine to PNG
More Australian-made coronavirus vaccines could be sent to PNG, which sits just kilometres from Australia's northernmost islands.
While the federal government has delivered an initial 8,480 doses of the AstraZeneca jab, more locally produced stocks could be heading to Australia's northern neighbour in a bid to help quell the outbreak.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson said the government was aware of the urgency of the situation.
"The possibility of some of Australia's domestically produced stocks being able to be used for this purpose is certainly something that is live but yet formally to be decided by government," she said on Thursday.
Aussie pharmaceutical giant CSL is contracted to manufacture 50 million AstraZeneca doses in Melbourne this year.
Greens senator Janet Rice told a Senate estimates hearing there was an urgent and dire need for vaccines in Papua New Guinea.
"We've got this absolute tragedy unfolding in PNG," she said.
Getting vaccines from Europe a 'top priority'
Foreign Minister Marise Payne indicated cabinet would consider the issue of sending more Australian-made vaccines. "That is something which must be on the table," she said.
Australia has also pledged to redirect one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine ordered from Europe to PNG. However there are doubts those vials will ever leave Europe where countries are desperately trying to hang on to domestic stocks.
Ms Adamson said all of Australia's European missions were advocating for the plight of PNG in an effort to ensure the vaccines are released.
"It's not one of a long list of things we're doing, it's the top priority in Europe," she said.
DFAT's Robin Davies said the PNG government was not expecting to be ready to rollout a mass vaccination campaign until mid-May.
"There are genuine limitations," he said.
Almost 300,000 doses are expected to be delivered to PNG in April through the global COVAX arrangement for poorer nations.
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