Papua New Guinea Facing “Uncontrolled” COVID Outbreak – MSF Claims Australia’s Opposition To COVID Patent Waiver Hinders Vaccine Access By Pacific Island Neighbors
Drive-through COVID-19 testing in Papua New Guinea. Only approximately 50,000 tests have been carried out in a country of almost nine million.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country that has largely avoided the SARS-CoV2 virus, is now facing an outbreak that could cause the country’s health system to collapse, while Australia is being chided by a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) official for its opposition to a World Trade Organization (WTO) patent waiver that MSF says would have opened up generic vaccine production faster. The disproportionate access of Papua New Guineans, as compared to Australians, to newly-developed COVID vaccines, is evidence of larger worldwide disparities between vaccine haves and have-nots, MSF says. 

Nearly half of the cases recorded in Papua New Guinea since the beginning of the pandemic, 2,351 total cases as of Monday, have been reported in the last two weeks. 

PNG was relatively quiet last year with its low number of cases being reported, but today it has bypassed countries like Australia by reporting the highest number of confirmed cases in the last 24 hours,” David Manning, Controller of the PNG COVID-19 National Pandemic Response, said in a statement on Monday. 

James Marape, the PNG’s Prime Minister, warned on Monday that the country was approaching an infection rate of one person in three or four, calling the situation “critical.”

“The number is quite staggering, if we don’t do [a] corrective response to this, our health system will be clogged and we won’t be able to sustain it,” Marape told reporters on Monday, announcing the implementation of nationwide restrictions. 

Prime Minister James Marape at a media conference in Port Moresby on Monday, announcing the implementation of nationwide restrictions.

The low rates of testing, in combination with the large gatherings held last month to commemorate the death of the former Prime Minister, Michael Somare, indicates that the number of infections and deaths is likely to rise rapidly in the coming weeks. 

Australia Blocked a World Trade Organization Proposal for an IP Waiver on COVID Tools – Would Open Markets For More Generic Vaccine Production, Charges MSF

The PNG was set to receive 200,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Australia and 70,000 from India through the COVAX facility, but was not expected to receive shipments of either until April at the earliest.

Responding to the crisis, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday announced that Australia would send 8,000 emergency doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Papua New Guinea, which has seen cases of the virus increase dramatically in the last month.

However, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Australia said Morrison’s gesture is far from being enough – charging that Australia should reverse its opposition to an intellectual property waiver on COVID-19 vaccines, being debated by the WTO, so poorer Pacific Island countries could get doses faster. 

“There’s no doubt [if] the intellectual property waiver had been hastened and scaled at an earlier time there was a higher probability that Papua New Guinea would have been able to get vaccines [by now],” Jennifer Tierney, Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Australia, told The Guardian.

“The intellectual property waiver proposal was first made to the WTO by India and South Africa in October last year. Australia was one of the countries opposing this from the start,” said Tierney.

“Add to that the fact that wealthy countries, including Australia, representing only 13% of the global population, had already locked up at least half of the world’s leading potential COVID-19 vaccines, through pre-purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies,” she added.

Australia’s objections to the patent waiver under debate in the WTO – which would temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medicines and vaccines came alongside those of Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Australia to Send Vaccines and PPE to Assist with “Uncontrolled” Outbreak in PNG 

Marape has reportedly asked Australian officials for assistance expediting vaccines for healthcare workers. This call has been echoed by aid groups, urging Australia to act immediately. 

“I put to [Australia] if possibly a smaller supply of vaccines could come in at the very earliest so that the health workers are given the defence in the first instance,” said Marape. 

In response Morrison said that 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be sent immediately, along with personal protective equipment (PPE) and a team of health specialists to provide technical advice and help with emergency management of the outbreak. 

“We’ve known that [the] challenge was always going to be too great for Papua New Guinea, as time went on, and that indeed is proving to be the case now,” said Morrison at a  Wednesday press conference

Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, at a press conference on Wednesday.

He also announced that Australia had requested the European Union to permit the immediate export to Australia of one million doses, for which the country had already contracted. Australia has purchased 53.8 million doses from AstraZeneca, 3.8 million of which are to be imported from overseas. 

“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them. And we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbour, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison said. 

This call comes shortly after Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 vaccines to Australia in early March due to its own domestic vaccine shortages; the Italian move was the only export order that a European Union member state has refused to implement – out of over 300 requests. 

An answer is expected from the EU within days.

Brazil’s Health System in Crisis as New Record in Deaths is Hit

Meanwhile, Brazil recorded 2,841 deaths on Tuesday, a record high for the country since the beginning of the pandemic, surpassing the US in the 7 day average of COVID-19 deaths, as the health service is experiencing a historic collapse. 

The COVID-19 units in 25 of Brazil’s 27 states are at or above 80% capacity. The health system is being overwhelmed by cases and the situation is “extremely critical across the country,” the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz), a biomedical centre manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine in Brazil, said in a statement.

“The situation in Brazil is a cautionary tale that keeping this virus under control requires continuous attention by public health authorities and leaders to protect people and health systems alike from the devastating impact of this virus,” said Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization, at a press briefing on Wednesday.

Brazil has the second highest number of infections and deaths in the world, with over 11.6 million cases and 282,127 deaths, and only 4.6% of the population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The health authorities are rolling out the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines and have purchased doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Sputnik V vaccines. The vaccination campaign, however, is slow and only a fifth of the expected doses produced in Brazil will be delivered by the end of March. 

Fiocruz researchers urged the government to adopt strict prevention and control measures, including restricting non-essential activities, expanding physical distancing measures, enforcing the use of masks on a large scale, and accelerating the rollout of vaccines. 

New Health Minister Continues With Bolsonaro’s Controversial COVID Policies

Brazil’s fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic was officially appointed on Wednesday. It is doubtful, however, that he will represent a change in the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently downplayed the severity of the virus and has received widespread criticism for his handling of the pandemic. 

Marcelo Queiroga, the new health minister, stopped short of endorsing social distancing measures or a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus at a press conference on Tuesday. Instead he asked the population to wear masks and wash their hands.

Marcelo Queiroga, Brazil’s new health minister, speaking to reporters on Tuesday.

“These are simple measures but they are important, because people can with these measures avoid having to shut down the country’s economy,” Queiroga said. 

He stressed that the country’s health policy is set by the president and the minister is responsible for implementing it.

Disapproval of President Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic has reached a record high, with 54% of respondents to a new Datafolha poll considering his actions bad or very bad. This has risen since late January, when 48% of respondents were disapproving.

Image Credits: ABC News Australia, Facebook – Papua New Guinea National Department of Health, ABC News Australia, Reuters.

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