The federal government has launched an emergency response to Papua New Guinea's coronavirus crisis in a race to prevent further spread of the virus to the Torres Strait and mainland Australia.
An initial 8,000 vaccine doses will be sent to PNG's frontline health workers from the Australian-manufactured AstraZeneca vaccines, which are expected to be ready from next week.
Australia has also requested a million vaccine doses from its existing AstraZeneca contract to be delivered urgently so they can be given to PNG, the government is seeking assistance from the European Union to get those doses quickly.
"I would expect to get cooperation from Europe on this," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Wednesday.
Mr Morrison spoke with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk overnight who has been calling on the government to do more following a rapid rise in cases in our northern neighbour.
In conjunction with the PNG government, Australia will "support a vaccine rollout in PNG's western province with a focus on supporting vaccinations in what is known as the treaty villages," Mr Morrison said.
"They're the villages that are literally just on the other side of the Torres Strait."
Concern over new virus strains developing
With a rapidly accelerating positivity rate emerging in PNG in recent weeks, there is growing concern about the potential threat of Covid mutations and variants developing on Australia’s doorstep.
Mr Morrison said it was incumbent upon Australians to help their neighbour which has limited healthcare infrastructure to deal with the growing outbreak.
"This is in Australia's interests and it is in our region's interests and it's incumbent on us as Australians both to secure the health of our own, but equally our PNG family who are so dear to us," he said.
Much of the work will be spearheaded by the Queensland government which is already rushing to vaccinate communities in the Torres Strait, with Border Force officials also deployed.
Australia will also provide one million surgical masks and 200,000 extra-protective masks and around 100,000 gowns and goggles. Bottles of sanitiser will also be provided along with 20,000 face shields and 200 ventilators.
Passenger flights from PNG to Cairns will be suspended from midnight on Wednesday for a fortnight.
All charter flights will be suspended with limited exemptions for freight, medical evacuations and other critical trips while passenger caps will be reduced by one quarter on flights from PNG to Brisbane.
True state of PNG outbreak not known
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said 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".
Greater assistance, including diverting vaccines, is the medically appropriate course of action.
"It's not only the right thing to do, but it will protect Australia," he said.
“Over the last couple of weeks, very rapidly the situation has changed in Papua New Guinea. Of the cases diagnosed in PNG, half of them have been diagnosed in the past couple of weeks,” he warned.
Because of the remote nature of much of the island nation and a sever lack of resource for testing, tracing and hospital care, the real number of cases and deaths in PNG is not known.
“Any number you see out of Papua New Guinea of cases and even deaths will be a major underestimate,” Prof Kelly said.
PNG has recorded 2,269 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began, with almost 100 new cases in the last 24-hour reporting period.
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