Ben Doherty, Pacific editor
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has said that Australia will provide Covid-19 vaccines to the country’s “Pacific family, as well as regional partners in Southeast Asia”.
Morrison had announced the Australian government had signed a letter of intent with British pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca to secure 25 million doses of the vaccine being developed by Oxford University if it proves successful in human trials.
While the signing is simply a preliminary step in possibly securing a still-hypothetical vaccine, Morrison said it could potentially be available early next year.
But Morrison said Australia, as well as providing the vaccines to its citizens, would look to help roll-out vaccines across the region, to ensure “early access to the vaccine for countries in our Pacific family, as well as regional partners in Southeast Asia”.
“Australia will also play an important role in supporting our Pacific family,” Morrison said.
“We have a regional role to play here as well as a domestic role to play here and we will be living up to all of those responsibilities as we progress this day.”
Tim Costello, spokesman for the #EndCovidForAll campaign, said the prime minister was “looking over the Australian horizon” to the global battle against the pandemic.
“He is absolutely right, Australia has a role to play to end Covid beyond our borders and to assist those less equipped to tackle this pandemic.
“Securing supply of a COVID-19 vaccine for our neighbours will bring a swifter end to the crisis, lessen the health impacts and allow for a quicker economic recovery in the region.”
Marc Purcell, the chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development, said there was a strong political, as well as moral, case to assist smaller countries secure vaccines in the expected forthcoming rush.
“There will be intense vaccine diplomacy and it is in Australia’s national interest to supply vaccines free to our neighbours in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“Not only is it the right thing to do, but assisting our neighbours with a vaccine is the way to build regional relationships and become a partner-of-choice. If we don’t, others will.”
The Pacific has been largely spared the worst of the health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, leveraging the region’s geographic isolation through the strict enforcement of border closures to keep infection numbers low.
But there are significant fears if the virus were to gain a significant foothold in the region – it could devastate island communities, which have limited public health infrastructure, and populations with high rates of comorbidities.
Papua New Guinea, Melanesia’s most populous country, is trying to control outbreaks across its islands. The country has jumped from a handful of cases to more than 300 in less a month.