Covid has spread to remote parts of Papua New Guinea, like East Sepik Province, where health service are basic at best. Photo: AFP/Dozier Marc

Australia on Wednesday asked AstraZeneca and the European Union for urgent access to one million vaccines to deal with an alarming Covid-19 surge in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wanted to divert doses that Australia had already ordered and paid for “as soon as possible,” to address a coronavirus explosion beyond Australia’s porous northern border.

“We’re making a formal request to AstraZeneca and the European authorities to access one million doses of our contracted supplies of AstraZeneca not for Australia, but for PNG, a developing country in desperate need of these vaccines,” he told reporters in Canberra.

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

The call comes as Italy recently blocked the export of 300,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia, in what some angry commentators described as dangerous “vaccine nationalism.”

Officially, Papua New Guinea has recorded more than 1,000 new cases 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 rapidly spreading undetected through the population, and officials have warned the impoverished Pacific nation’s fragile healthcare system is struggling to cope.

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. We’re seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with Covid-19,” he added.

“These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community.”

Morrison also announced emergency support for Australia’s former colony of about eight million people, including dispatching medical support teams, personal protective equipment and 8,000 vaccine doses to inoculate healthcare workers.

The virus is largely under control in Australia, with more than 29,000 cases since the pandemic began and few recent community outbreaks allowing restrictions to be relaxed nationwide.

Officials in Queensland said that about half the state’s hospitalized Covid-19 patients had come from Papua New Guinea, while a recent batch of 500 tests sent from Port Moresby showed a 50% 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.

Despite a sluggish vaccine rollout in Australia, the country this week also accelerated inoculations across its northern Torres Strait islands, which lie just a few miles from Papua New Guinea.