Australia urges EU to send 1 million COVID-19 vaccines for PNG amid fresh outbreak

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) battle a dangerous outbreak that authorities fear could spread to other parts of the region.

The request could inflame existing tensions between Canberra and Brussels amid claims of vaccine nationalism after the EU recently blocked an Australia-bound shipment of the doses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the vaccines were contracted to Australia and were now badly needed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a short boat ride from Australian territory.

“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,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners… This is in Australia‚Äôs interests, and is in our region’s interests.”

“We confirm that the President of the European Commission has received a letter from the Australian Prime Minister on this topic and we will reply in due time,” a spokeswoman for the EU executive said on Wednesday.

Australia will donate 8,000 locally produced COVID-19 vaccines to PNG as an immediate response to the outbreak, and would make a million doses available as soon as they arrived from Europe, he said.

Earlier this month, the EU, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.

It later denied Australia’s request to review the blockage, the first such refusal since Brussels established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.

PNG has officially recorded over 2,300 cases since the pandemic began, a figure experts say vastly underestimates the true outbreak.

Prime Minister James Marape earlier this week said COVID-19 had “broken loose” as he warned local hospitals would soon be overwhelmed.

Marape has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel but his warning came as thousands of people gathered to mourn the death of Michael Somare, PNG’s first prime minister after independence from Australia.

Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the limited coronavirus testing being done in PNG was showing alarming results.

“When people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.

Morrison warned an “uncontrolled” outbreak could produce a new variant of the virus that would affect not only PNG but the wider region.

Canberra will suspend all travel to and from PNG from Wednesday midnight, he added.

Australia said in a statement on Wednesday it has approached the United States, Japan and India, members of the so-called Quad group of Asia Pacific nations, to seek additional help for PNG.

FIGHTING CHANCE

A senior Australian government source said while the EU had justified blocking the shipment to Australia due to Canberra’s success in containing the virus, that rationale would not hold with PNG.

Aid agencies echoed the desperate need for vaccines in the impoverished country of almost nine million people.

“PNG needs a fighting chance to beat this, and frontline doctors and nurses could be the difference between keeping this under control or utter catastrophe for PNG’s health system,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid agencies.

The government source said Canberra would lodge its request with the EU this week and an answer was likely within days. He declined to be named as he is not authorized to talk to media.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Colin Packahm in Canberra; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Stephen Coates, Christopher Cushing and Sam Holmes)

India sees early vaccine launch as AstraZeneca deliveries run late

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India raced ahead with work on its coronavirus vaccine while Britain’s AstraZeneca said its deliveries were running “a little bit late” as countries around the world sought to conquer the pandemic and rescue their economies.

A vaccine is seen as the world’s best bet for taming a virus that has infected more than 48 million people, led to more than 1.2 million deaths, roiled economies and disrupted billions of lives since it was first identified in China in December.

Australia is beefing up its prospective arsenal against the pandemic to 135 million doses of various vaccine candidates.

“We aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday.

Some 45 vaccine candidates are in human trials worldwide, with Pfizer Inc saying it could file in late November for U.S. authorization, opening up the possibility of a vaccine being available in the United States by the end of the year.

Moderna and AstraZeneca are close behind the largest U.S. drugmaker and are likely to have early data on their vaccine candidates before the end of the year.

An Indian government-backed vaccine could be launched as early as February – months earlier than expected – as last-stage trials begin this month and studies have so far showed it is safe and effective, a senior government scientist told Reuters.

Bharat Biotech, a private company that is developing COVAXIN with the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), had earlier hoped to launch it only in the second quarter of next year.

“The vaccine has shown good efficacy,” senior ICMR scientist Rajni Kant, who is also a member of its COVID-19 task force, said at the research body’s New Delhi headquarters.

“It is expected that by the beginning of next year, February or March, something would be available.”

Bharat Biotech could not immediately be contacted.

A launch in February would make COVAXIN the first India-made vaccine to be rolled out.

VACCINE KEPT FROZEN

AstraZeneca has signed multiple deals to supply more than three billion doses of its candidate to countries around the world.

But a summer dip in British coronavirus infections had pushed back test results, leading the drugmaker to delay deliveries of shots to the government.

Britain’s vaccines chief said on Wednesday it would receive just 4 million doses of the potential vaccine this year, against initial estimates for 30 million by Sept. 30.

AstraZeneca said on Thursday it was holding back deliveries while it awaits the data from late-stage clinical trials in order to maximize the shelf-life of supplies.

“We are a little bit late in deliveries, which is why the vaccine has been kept in frozen form,” CEO Pascal Soriot said on a conference call.

AstraZeneca and its partner on the project, the University of Oxford, said that data from late-stage trials should land this year.

The United States leads the world in both the number of COVID deaths and infections and the pandemic was a polarizing issue in Tuesday’s presidential election in which votes were still being counted.

Australia’s Morrison said the government would buy 40 million vaccine doses from Novavax and 10 million from Pfizer and BioNTech.

That adds to the 85 million doses Australia has already committed to buy from AstraZeneca and CSL Ltd should trials prove successful.

Among other vaccine candidates around the world, a growing number of Russians are unwilling to be inoculated once a vaccine becomes widely available, the Levada Centre, Russia’s only major independent pollster, said this week.

Russia, raising eyebrows in the West, is rolling out its “Sputnik V” vaccine for domestic use despite the fact that late-stage trials have not yet finished.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Australian prime minister’s approval rating goes up in flames

By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Public support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison has slumped to its lowest levels amid widespread anger over his government’s handling of Australia’s bushfire crisis, according to a survey released by Newspoll on Monday.

At least 28 people have been killed in the fires that have destroyed 2,000 homes, and razed 11.2 million hectares (27.7 million acres), nearly half the area of the United Kingdom

Morrison has come under attack for being slow to respond to the crisis, even taking a family holiday to Hawaii while fires were burning. He acknowledged during a television interview on Sunday that he had made some mistakes.

“We have heard the message loud and clear from the Australian people,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Monday, when asked about the poll result as he announced a A$50 million ($34.56 million) wildlife protection fund.

“They want to see a Federal Government adopt a very direct response to these natural and national disasters,” Frydenberg said.

The Newspoll survey showed Morrison’s approval rating dropped 8% since the last poll on Dec 8 to stand at 37%, scoring lower than opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

It is Morrison’s worst showing in the poll since he took over leadership of the ruling Liberal Party in August 2018 when a backbench uprising ousted former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

No margin of error was provided for the poll, which surveyed 1,505 people from Wednesday to Saturday, although it was about 2.5% points in previous Newspolls.

The poll was taken after Morrison announced a A$2 billion bushfire recovery fund and called out 3,000 army reservists to back up state emergency workers – responses that were viewed as belated.

Morrison said on Sunday he would take a proposal to Cabinet to hold a Royal Commission national inquiry into the bushfires, including examining the response to the crisis, the role and powers of the federal government and the impact of climate change.

After weeks of raging fires whipped up by erratic winds and temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), conditions eased over the weekend with showers forecast for New South Wales (NSW), the worst hit state, over the next few days.

“If this BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) rainfall forecast comes to fruition then this will be all of our Christmas, birthday, engagement, anniversary, wedding and graduation presents rolled into one. Fingers crossed,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said on Twitter.

Here are key events in the crisis:

-Australia’s pristine ‘AAA’ sovereign rating is not at “immediate risk” from the fiscal and economic impact of bushfires raging across the country’s east coast, S&P said on Monday.

-The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) said on Monday bushfire victims can submit damaged banknote claims to redeem their lost money.

-The Australian government committed A$50 million to an emergency wildlife recovery program on Monday, calling the bushfires crisis engulfing the country “an ecological disaster” that threatens several species, including koalas and rock wallabies.

-German engineering giant Siemens <SIEGn.DE> said it would fulfill its contract to provide signaling for a rail line to a controversial new coal mine being built by India’s Adani Group <ADEL.NS> in Australia’s outback, drawing criticism from green groups on Monday.

-Frydenberg announced A$50 million in funding on Monday for protecting wildlife and restoring damaged habitat, with a focus on threatened species, like koalas, with heartbreaking images of rescues of burned animals having gone viral around the world.

-Since October, thousands of Australians have been subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 11.2 million hectares (27.7 million acres), an area nearly half the size of the United Kingdom.

-Across New South Wales, 111 fires were still burning late on Sunday, 40 of them not yet contained, but none at emergency level.

-A number of fires burning in the Snowy Mountains region in New South Wales and into Victoria have merged across more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land. They do not pose a threat, authorities say, despite being in an area hard to reach.

-The government said on Sunday it would provide A$76 million ($52 million) for mental health counseling and healthcare consultations to firefighters, emergency workers, individuals and communities.

-Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services said on Sunday an out-of-control and unpredictable fire that is moving slowly in the state’s south, poses a possible threat to lives and homes in the area.

-South Australia said on Sunday that more than 32,000 livestock animals, mostly sheep, had died in recent fires on Kangaroo Island, while fire services are working to strengthen containment lines ahead of expected worsening weather conditions on Monday.

-Thousands of Australians took to the streets on Friday to protest against government inaction on climate change, and were supported by protesters in London.

-Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other recent catastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged by 2019 fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

-Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion, higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.

-The Insurance Council of Australia increased to more than A$900 million its estimate of damage claims from the fires, and they are expected to jump further.

-About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with 140 more expected in coming weeks.

-The fires have emitted 400 megatons of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

-Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney, Editing by Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)