Experts say true scale of outbreak is unknown and worry crowds at funeral of former PM could exacerbate the situation.
Australia on Wednesday said it was asking AstraZeneca and the European Union for urgent access to one million doses of its contracted COVID-19 vaccine to send to its northern neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is struggling to contain an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that PNG, a former colony of Australia, was “a developing country in desperate need”. Some 8,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine produced in Australia would be sent to the Pacific island nation to inoculate healthcare workers.
PNG has recorded more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 since March 1 – nearly doubling its total since the start of the pandemic a year ago.
But low rates of testing have raised concerns the virus is spreading undetected through the population and officials worry that the country’s hospitals will struggle to cope.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbours. They’re our partners,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra, as he announced Australia would also send emergency medical teams and supplies of personal protective equipment.
“They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them. This is in Australia’s interests and is in our region’s interests.”
PNG Prime Minister James Marape said on Tuesday the country had recorded 97 cases of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours.
In a statement, Amnesty International said it had reports that some hospitals were full or threatening to close to new admissions while there was not enough personal protective equipment for medical staff and other front liners.
“Papua New Guinea’s health crisis has now reached the level we feared it would a year ago with a surge in cases,” Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said in a statement.
“A combination of an ailing health system and inadequate living conditions has created a perfect storm for COVID-19 to thrive in the country’s overcrowded informal settlements.”
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said 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,” he added. “We’re seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with COVID-19. These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community.”
Cases have also been detected among people returning to Australia from PNG.
Officials in the state of Queensland told the AFP news agency that about half its COVID-19 patients currently in hospital had come from Papua New Guinea, while a recent batch of 500 tests sent from Port Moresby, the PNG capital, showed a 50 percent infection rate.
In an effort to prevent the virus from spreading, Morrison said Australia was suspending most passenger flights to and from Port Moresby, with exemptions for essential medical and humanitarian travel.
Australian state authorities have also accelerated inoculations in the Torres Strait islands this week, some of which are only a short boat ride from western PNG.
Australia has reported more than 29,000 cases since the pandemic began, but has largely brought COVID-19 under control allowing the relaxation of many health restrictions.