Papua New Guinea's health minister on Wednesday told AFP the country's record wave of coronavirus infections will "spike" further in coming weeks, calling on drug-maker AstraZeneca to urgently deliver one million vaccine doses to staunch the looming crisis.
Jelta Wong warned his under-resourced nation was already "running at full throttle" to prevent a wave of coronavirus cases from running out of control, saying new lockdowns and overseas help were urgently needed.
"In the next couple of weeks, there is going to be a spike in the cases," he said, amid rising fears of an impending health disaster in the impoverished South Pacific nation of nine million.
Papua New Guinea rapidly shut its international borders at the beginning of the pandemic, limiting infections to just a few hundred and dodging the worst ravages of the global crisis.
But more than 1,000 new cases have been uncovered this month alone, and with testing rates still low, there are fears the real total is much higher.
"The community transmission is out there, and I'm pretty sure that we haven't detected a lot of it," Wong admitted. "But we're running at full capacity just to ensure that we do get to all places."
With hospitals reporting a surge in patients and emergency staff falling sick, Australia on Wednesday said it was rushing 8,000 doses to its northern neighbour to inoculate frontline workers.
In Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also called for AstraZeneca to divert one million Australian-bought doses to Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.
Wong said those doses were needed "just to control the spread" before the situation gets out of hand.
"I'd rather have it here than wait for it to come when we're really down," he told AFP.
Papua New Guinea's rough terrain of high mountain valleys, dense jungles and a lack of infrastructure make gauging the scale of the emergency difficult.
But Australia's chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there were reports hospitals in the capital Port Moresby were detecting the virus in about half of new patient admissions.
"Half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive. We're seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with Covid-19," he added.
"These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community."
Officials in Queensland told AFP that about half the state's hospitalised Covid-19 patients had come from Papua New Guinea, while a recent batch of 500 tests sent from Port Moresby showed a 50 percent infection rate.
Wong said vast nationwide memorial services this month for Papua New Guinea's first prime minister and "father of the nation" Michael Somare would likely contribute to the surge in cases.
At one event in Port Moresby, throngs of people lined Independence Boulevard throwing flowers onto the passing motorcade carrying the body of the "Grand Chief" as it approached parliament.
"The culture is when they show their grief, everybody turns up," said Wong. "People seem to forget... you still need to have the mask, still social distance yourself and sanitise."
"Unfortunately, we haven't had that during the mourning period."
- Vaccine nationalism -
The call for AstraZeneca vaccine to be diverted to Papua New Guinea comes amid debate over "vaccine nationalism" after Italy blocked the export of 300,000 doses to Australia.
Canberra played down that blockade, saying the vaccines were not urgently needed Down Under -- where there is little community transmission.
But there are now concerns that the situation in Papua New Guinea could spill over the vast maritime border between the two countries.
Australia has suspended most passenger flights to and from PNG, with exemptions for essential medical and humanitarian travel.
Charter flights to and from mining operations in Papua New Guinea -- which had already been put on hold -- were frozen indefinitely.
Despite a sluggish vaccine rollout in Australia, the country also accelerated inoculations across its northern Torres Strait islands, which lie just a few miles from Papua New Guinea.