PNG's coronavirus crisis is 'out of control' and poses a significant threat to Australia, say experts

Experts are calling on the Australian government to immediately send a small number of vaccines to the Pacific island nation to protect health workers there.

A Port Moresby testing centre.

A Port Moresby testing centre. Source: Papua New Guinea National Department of Health/Facebook

The unfolding coronavirus crisis in Papua New Guinea presents an immediate danger to Australia and Canberra must act urgently to assist, say experts.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia’s closest neighbour to the north has increased dramatically in recent days and the health system is on the verge of collapse.

With testing levels so low, there is no way of knowing the true extent of the virus spread in PNG, which experts say could be significantly worse than reported.

On Monday the Queensland government said 250 out of 500 coronavirus tests they had done in laboratories there on behalf of PNG had returned a positive result.

"Maybe we need to look at a vaccine rollout program there as well. It's right on our doorstop and it's a real risk," Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Monday.

Two of Queensland's six new COVID-19 cases in hotel quarantine on Monday were also from PNG.

Ms Palaszczuk added that she hoped to speak to Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the situation within the next 24 hours.

Brendan Crabb, director of medical research centre the Burnet Institute, said the situation in PNG was “rampant and out of control”.

“It is extremely worrying, we aren’t at a peak yet, but we are a matter of weeks away from disaster,” he told SBS News.

“The most important thing now is not ‘what?’ it’s ‘when?’. A fast imperfect response is better than a slow perfect response. Things need to happen today or tomorrow if we want any chance to put a lid on this,” he said.

No one in the PNG has been vaccinated against coronavirus yet and vaccines aren’t expected to arrive and be rolled out for weeks or even months.

Dr Crabb called on the Australian government to immediately send 20,000 vaccines to protect healthcare workers in PNG saying it was a “drop in the ocean” of Australia’s vaccine supplies and would prevent the healthcare system from total collapse.

Australia has promised to deliver vaccines to PNG but not until later in the year.

“Our commitments to PNG and the Pacific have been great, but we have now an emergency so we need a rethink and do all we can as fast as we can,” Dr Crabb said.

He said if left unchecked the virus in PNG could also mutate into another "variant of concern" on Australia’s doorstep.

Melbourne University Associate Professor Monica Minnegal said Australia had a moral and practical incentive to help, given the country’s proximity to Australia, but also a strategic one.

“The health system is close to collapse, if it does collapse there will be people dying in the streets. We will have to help. If we do not step up China will,” she said.

Both Associate Professor Minnegal and Dr Crabb said that any response from Australia should be at the PNG government’s request.

Associate Professor Minnegal said the Queensland government’s response of speeding up vaccinations for people in the Torres Strait was just “putting up the walls and letting people on the other side die”.

“The best thing we can do to protect Australia is to secure the health workers in Port Moresby so they can go out and prevent this becoming a bigger crisis,” she said.

“We cannot hide from this, we are going to have to do something about this”.

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Published 15 March 2021 at 4:18pm
By Jarni Blakkarly