An emergency support package to assist in fighting Papua New Guinea's ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 will see Australia send personal protective equipment (PPE), medical support and more than one million vaccines to the northern neighbour.
From tonight, 8,000 locally produced vaccines will be sent to PNG, with one million more to come from Australia's order of AstraZeneca vaccines from Europe which have been temporarily suspended.
The Australian government will work with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF to ensure the vaccine assistance complements PNG's COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said the 8,000 vaccines would "fill a critical gap in advance of Papua New Guinea's receipt of its vaccines from the COVAX facility", which are expected to arrive in April with further doses coming in May.
All flights between Port Moresby and Cairns will be suspended from midnight tonight for a fortnight, and passenger capacity on flights between PNG's capital and Brisbane will be reduced by 25 per cent.
To maintain emergency supplies and other essential services, freight flights will continue.
Charter flights from PNG into Australia will also be suspended, with limited exceptions for medivac, humanitarian and other critical flights.
Australia will send an AUSMAT team to assist with the concerning outbreak of the coronavirus in PNG. The specialists will work with PNG's health authorities on infection control, triage and emergency management and public health measures.
Australia is also providing the following new targeted support:
- Supply of PPE, non-invasive ventilators and other equipment for Port Moresby General Hospital and other facilities, as well as 200,000 facemasks;
- Working with the WHO on expanding warehouse capacity to increase storage for PPE and streamline its distribution;
- Supply of hospital tent facilities outside Port Moresby General Hospital for safe triaging and referral and transfer of patients;
- Supporting St John's PNG and National Capital District Provincial Health Authority to establish Taurama Aquatic Centre as an isolation facility for mild to moderate cases with up to 120 bed capacity;
- Funding support for the re-opening of the Rita Flynn Testing and Isolation Facility to relieve pressure on the Port Moresby General Hospital;
- Funding St John's Ambulance's COVID-19 operations in Port Moresby, including patient transport, COVID-19 testing and PPE distribution to clinics;
- Supporting the COVID-19 National Control Centre with information management, risk communications, quarantine management and health financing; and
- Scaling up surveillance, testing and clinical care capacity in Port Moresby and provinces with known outbreaks, and testing of samples in Australia.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly highlighted how rapidly the situation in PNG has changed in the past weeks.
"Any number you see coming out of Papua New Guinea in terms of cases and even deaths will be a major underestimate," Kelly said.
The Federal Government's response follows pleas from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk over concerns about what is happening in PNG.
On Monday she said from 500 tests sent to PNG from QLD, 250 returned positive.
Today more details about this testing were revealed, with Professor Kelly noting one in two pregnant women going to hospital are testing positive while the same percentage of workers at PNG's Ok Tedi mine have contracted the virus.
The CMO also noted the possibility that new variants could arise in PNG if the pandemic goes on uncontrolled.
"That would be not only a major problem for PNG but also for us and the region, if there was a PNG strain to develop for example," he said, noting genomic analysis had not identified any variant of concern at this stage.
He said the PNG outbreak had led to a doubling of overseas arrivals being admitted to Queensland hospitals over the past ten days.
This package is in addition to $144 million in support given to PNG to assist with COVID-19 vaccination in the region over three years.
It also builds on $80 million already contributed by the Australian government to the COVAX facility for developing countries which will support vaccine access for around 20 percent of populations at greatest risk in 92 developing countries.
The COVAX facility is expected to deliver 588,000 vaccines for PNG by June.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia has already provided assistance of over $60 million dollars in assistance to help PNG respond to the crisis.
"They're our friends. They're our neighbours. They're our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
"We've known that that 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."
The PM has called upon the European Union to release the vaccines Australia has ordered so they can be sent over to PNG.
"I'm expecting to get cooperation out of Europe," he said.
"We've contracted them, you would expect them to be supplied. This would enable us to get those supplies into Papua New Guinea.
"Those vaccines and their deployment would therefore be following through on the very public statements that have been made in the European Union about their commitment to ensure there is no vaccine protectionism and that vaccines do go to those most in need."
Second phase of Australia's COVID vaccine rollout commencing next week
The second phase of the Federal Government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout will commence from 22 March as more than 1,000 general practices join the program.
The launch comes as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has backed the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite a number of European nations pausing the rollout of it due to blood clotting concerns.
Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout will come online from 22 March, complementing the first phase of inoculations currently underway to protect the country's most vulnerable.
The Government hopes more than 4,000 general practices will join the program by the end of April, aligning with the supply of the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine.
Over 100 Aboriginal Health Services and 130 Commonwealth operated GP-led Respiratory Clinics will also be progressively added as additional vaccine providers.
Phase 1B includes some of the most vulnerable Australians, such as the elderly and people with certain underlying medical conditions.
"We are committed to making sure that every Australian that wants a vaccine will be able to be vaccinated," says Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt.
"As the rollout moves into Phase two, additional general practices and selected community pharmacists will also participate in the program. No one will miss out, whether they live in a city or country town or a very remote area.
"Vaccines are the game changer in our fight against the COVID-19 virus and I urge everyone in Australia to come forward and get vaccinated when they are able to. It will protect themselves, their family, and their community."
To find out if you are eligible to be vaccinated in the next Phase and to book in for a jab head to the Department of Health website and use the Eligibility Checker.
TGA backs AstraZeneca
Australia's drug regulator is standing by its decision to approve the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as reports emerge from Europe that the shot may be causing blood clots in a tiny number of people.
The situation in Europe has even seen a number of nations pause the rollout of that vaccine as the European Medicines Agency continues to investigate the issue.
Despite those reports, the TGA remains confident about the vaccine's safety, saying it has not received any reports of blood clots following administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia.
The regulator also points to a report from the UK regulator which said "it has not been confirmed that the reports of blood clots were caused by the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. People should still go and get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so".
Further, the body says it considers blood clots to be 'adverse events of special interest', but also notes that they are the third most common cardiovascular disease globally, with an annual incidence of over 10 million people.
"In Australia, at least 17,000 people develop venous thromboembolism each year. This equates to an average 50 people per day, so unfortunately a significant number of people develop this medical condition," the TGA said.
"As of this time there is no indication of an increased rate of blood clots happening or cause and effect with the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia."
Updated 10.20am AEDT on 17 March.
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