Papua New Guinea will kick off its coronavirus vaccination program by the coming weekend, beginning with 8,000 AstraZeneca doses from neighbouring Australia.
The Pacific Island country of nine million people is desperately trying to prevent its basic health system being overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-19 cases, amounting to nearly 4,000 cases by Wednesday.
The rapidly spreading outbreak has already claimed 37 lives, including a member of parliament.
Nobody in the country has been vaccinated so far, and Prime Minister James Marape has said he will be the first to receive the jab to show they are safe for everyone.
However, in a statement he said the vaccines will not be compulsory.
“The government will not force anyone to take the vaccines, but you cannot stop doctors and others if they choose to take this or another vaccine,” he said.
Marape said Australia is trying to procure another one million doses for PNG, and he urged citizens to not take “this sort of help for granted when globally medical supply is tight”.
Canberra is worried an “uncontrolled” outbreak could produce a new variant of the virus that would affect not only PNG but the wider region, including Queensland.
Australia’s chief health officer Brendan Murphy described their procurement discussions with Europe as “very tense” on Wednesday.
“AstraZeneca are doing everything they can, our diplomatic colleagues are doing everything they can,” Murphy said. “If we don’t succeed in getting any overseas jabs we will certainly be discussing with government about whether we can deploy some more of our local product.”
Last week, PNG increased restrictions by shutting pubs, clubs and gaming sites, banning large gatherings and making face masks mandatory.