Covid vaccine fast-tracked in Torres Strait as fears of Papua New Guinea outbreak grow

Vaccinations on Saibai, a short dinghy ride from PNG, have begun, amid warnings against complacency

As Papua New Guinea teeters on the brink of a catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19, there are fears that complacency with border security could result in the virus reaching the Torres Strait and then mainland Australia.

Covid cases in Papua New Guinea have jumped alarmingly over the last fortnight. The Pacific nation has reported a total of 2,269 cases and 26 deaths over the course of the pandemic but there are fears that the true rate of community transmission is much higher and is masked by low testing rates.

Fears about the spread of Covid have led to the fast-tracking of the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the Torres Strait this week, including on the island of Saibai which is only a short dinghy ride south of PNG’s Western province.

A Queensland Health spokesperson said this week 40 people on Saibai had been vaccinated, with plans to start vaccinating people on Boigu and Dauan islands next week.

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“While I am really happy the vaccine is being rolled out in community, especially with the rising number of Covid-19 cases in PNG, we cannot be complacent,” the Torres Strait Island regional council mayor, Phillemon Mosby, told the Guardian.

“Our communities are small and with overcrowded living conditions. Just one case in community would spread rapidly, our people are vulnerable, and an outbreak would be catastrophic.

“Our people move around between islands and with the conflicting news stories about the safety of the vaccines, many people are not sure if it is safe, so who can say that 100% of people on Saibai are being vaccinated this week or Boigu next week?”

There is normally a porous border between PNG and the Torres Strait, and movements of traditional inhabitants can reach up to 50,000 a year under the Torres Strait treaty. But since March last year all cross-border movements have been suspended.

An Australian Border Force spokesperson said the ban on all cross-border travel would remain “until further notice” and ABF was “closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with Australian and Papua New Guinea (PNG) counterparts”.

Over the past year the ABF has committed significant air, sea and land-based resources, the ABF spokesperson said, including ships, fast-response boats, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and personnel deployments.

This approach had resulted in a significant reduction in cross-border incursions, which had helped protect the Torres Strait region from Covid.

Mosby urged the government to keep the borders closed until widespread vaccination had occurred and Australia had a better sense of the how widespread community transmission was in PNG.

“I am aware the Australian Government are having talks with the PNG government in terms of us helping roll out the vaccine there but given what is happening across the rest of the world right now, we do not want the border opened prematurely,” he said.

“We need our people vaccinated and the border kept shut until we can get such information of how many people have been screened in PNG, how many have been vaccinated and allow time for that process to take its course.

“It may be that it is under-resourced, and it could be the window of opportunity for the virus to come into our country.”

Contributor

Aaron Smith

The GuardianTramp

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