SYDNEY - Chinese state-owned media has claimed that Australian consultants in Papua New Guinea have been hindering the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines flown in from China. It was alleged that they had engaged “in political manipulation and bullying” there.
Australia has strongly denied claims it has tried to sabotage China’s efforts to boost vaccinations in Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea is currently using the AstraZeneca vaccine. Two hundred thousand doses of the Sinopharm vaccine have recently been flown in from China but have yet to be approved for use by local authorities.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned Australia to “stop interfering with and undermining vaccine cooperation between China and Pacific Island countries.”
Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. all international assistance is welcome.
“When it comes to the rollout, what we are focused on is making sure that we are providing as much assistance as we possibly can,” Seselja said. “If other countries want to provide assistance that is wonderful.”
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s nearest neighbor and has recorded more than 17,000 coronavirus infections and 174 deaths since the pandemic began but it is hard to get accurate figures due to lack of testing, according to media reports.
The South Pacific nation has a population of about 9 million. It has administered just under 55,000 vaccine doses, faced with both hesitancy among Papua New Guineans and a lack of supply.
Australia has pledged to ship 10,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Papua New Guinea every week, along with medical support. It has also promised to donate tens of thousands of additional doses to other Pacific nations.
China delivered 50,000 Sinopharm doses to the Solomon Islands earlier this year.
The row over vaccines in Papua New Guinea is the latest dispute between Australia and China. Relations have soured in recent years over geopolitical flashpoints, including Beijing’s military ambitions in the South China Sea and allegations of Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic affairs.
Papua New Guinean health officials are trying to stay out of any diplomatic arguments between Australia and China. They have said they are not concerned about where their coronavirus vaccines come from but just want sufficient supplies to protect the country’s population.