A planeload of Chinese mine workers have been barred from entering Papua New Guinea, over concerns they had been subjected to an unapproved Covid-19 vaccination trial before they left.
A flight from China carrying workers for the Chinese state-owned Ramu Nickel mine in Madang province was cancelled by PNG’s police commissioner and pandemic controller, David Manning, over concerns about the trial.
Mine owner Ramu NiCo, run by Chinese state-owned enterprise the Metallurgical Corporation of China, reportedly issued an official statement to PNG’s National Department of Health stating that 48 of its staff had been vaccinated with Sars-Cov-2 vaccine on 10 August.
The company said its employees may test positive to Covid-19 on arrival in PNG because of antibodies produced in response to the vaccine.
Manning said the PNG government had been given no information on the trial, and banned the flight from entering the country.
“In light of the lack of information, of what these trials are and what possible risks or threats that they may cause our people if they were to come into the country, I cancelled that flight yesterday to ensure that we continue to act in the best interest of our people and our country.
“Until the Chinese government through the Chinese embassy in Port Moresby provide that information I will be best guided by our health and medical experts here as to what would be the appropriate steps to take when considering looking at applications of Chinese nationals that have been subjected to these vaccination trials entering the country,” Manning said.
Manning has written to the Chinese ambassador in Port Moresby and to Ramu Nickel, seeking clarification on the vaccination trial.
PNG has also implemented a new measure under its national pandemic act banning vaccine trials inside the country and the provision of unapproved vaccination or pharmaceutical intervention to anyone in PNG.
Any person who arrives in PNG claiming to have received a vaccine overseas will not be exempt from the country’s strict quarantine and testing.
There is no recognised vaccine for Covid-19, however a number of Chinese companies are part of the global race to develop one.
Eight of the 21 vaccines identified by the World Health Organisation as currently undergoing clinical trials are being developed by Chinese companies.
China has approved trials on employees of state-run companies with employees travelling overseas, and on military personnel.
PNG, the most populous nation in Melanesia, stands on the threshold of a potentially devastating wave of infections.
While border closures and domestic shutdowns have kept official infection numbers very low by global standards – just 361 cases and three deaths – there are fears the country’s fragile health system could quickly be overwhelmed by an unconstrained outbreak.
In the capital Port Moresby, more than 40% of people live in informal settlements, usually in large extra-familial groups, making social distancing impossible, and without access to running water.
There are fears, too, the actual extent of PNG’s Covid spread is far greater than the official statistics. Since the start of the pandemic, the entire country has conducted only 14,400 tests.
Despite the recent spike in positive cases – from less than 10 a month ago – the government is under pressure to ease restrictions and address the country’s acute economic challenges.