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-Papua New Guinea has approved $4 million (US$2.8 million) in funding from the country’s devastated budget for an unnamed and unproven COVID-19 “treatment”, as the country seeks an emergency $140m (US$98.7 million) funding injection from Australian taxpayers.
A cabinet submission prepared for PNG Prime Minister James Marape claims a University of Papua New Guinea team has “scanned and analysed” 30,000 drugs and natural products “using new computational and structural biology tools”, selecting the top ten candidates for inclusion in the new therapy.
“The team is highly confident this discovery could be potentially used as a treatment for COVID-19 infections,” the submission says.
The 20 October document, which is signed by Marape, directs the funds be made available for the drug, and orders “the commencement of treatment on COVID-19 patients in the country”.
The move comes as PNG lobbies Australia for an urgent budget top-up, after a $440m (US$310 million) loan last year, as its government struggles to pay an estimated $1.1bn(US$776 million) in unpaid bills and superannuation.
The combination drug “discovery” would be patented by new local drug company Niugini BioMed and the PNG government, according to the cabinet document obtained by The Australian.
“Sales and purchasing of this drug regime by overseas governments and pharmacies should be of enormous financial benefit for Papua New Guinea,” the submission said.
It said the research team had made “a very impressive presentation of their discovery” to the Prime Minister, and had “given us the hope and the confidence to … relax the local restrictions and open the domestic economy”.
Australian officials said last year in a review of the nation’s $578m(US$407 million) PNG aid programme that “corruption and weak management” were hampering the delivery of basic services to the country’s people.
PNG has recorded 588 known COVID-19 cases, including seven deaths, but the number of infections could be significantly under-reported due to low levels of testing.
Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb, an infectious diseases researcher who grew up in PNG and works closely with the PNG Institute of Medical Research, said the claimed development was “news to me”.
“It is a really big path to go down to develop your own products. So they would only get so far with that money, and they would need partnerships and so on,” Professor Crabb told The Australian.
“It deserves strong scrutiny, as any government expenditure would, whether in Australia or PNG, on these sorts of issues.”
But he said the idea that PNG could develop a COVID-19 cure from natural compounds was “completely conceivable”.
“There are a lot of species of plants and microbes there that are completely unique, and that’s where we get a lot of our antimicrobial agents from,” Professor Crabb said.
In the latest federal budget, the Australian government established a new $304.7m (US$240.3 million) COVID-19 Recovery Fund for “Pacific Step-Up” neighbours, to be spent over the next two years.
The budget confirmed the government was in talks with PNG “regarding the need to expand its loan provisions to PNG as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts”. “This may result in the provision of further funding to PNG,” it said.
The Business Council of PNG’s executive director Douveri Henao recently called on the government to pay its bills to “bleeding” local businesses, saying the government owed $350m (US$246 million) to suppliers and $800m (US$564 million) in unpaid superannuation
SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/PACNEWS
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