Local authorities in Papua New Guinea are calling for calm, after the country announced its first case of the Omicron variant.
Authorities announced on Tuesday the case was a man who came to Papua New Guinea in December from South Africa, after travelling through London and Hong Kong. He initially tested negative with no symptoms upon arrival in the country.
“Given the period for the man’s travel, it is unclear when or where he contracted the Omicron strain, however given its incubation period of three days– it is likely he acquired it after departing South Africa,” said David Manning, national pandemic response controller.
“Contact tracing has been undertaken, and no further close contact infections have been identified. But considering the timeline surrounding the man’s movement, the government is working from the assumption that the Omicron variant is now active in Papua New Guinea.”
The man, who was vaccinated, is now fully recovered.
Manning said “the key message for our people is not to panic, but to do the right thing and reduce the speed of the spread”.
Papua New Guinea has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the world, with less than 3% of the total population vaccinated.
Recent statistics from the National Control Centre, indicate that only 229,000 people have been fully vaccinated, out of a population of roughly 9 million. About 290,000 people have received at least one dose. Last year, the Lowy Institute in Australia conducted modelling that predicted PNG would take five years to vaccinate just a third of its population.
Despite low first and second dose rates, the country recently announced the approval and availability of booster shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“The medical and scientific advisory committee have now advised that there is overwhelming evidence that a Covid-19 booster shot is prudent even for people who are fully vaccinated, as an additional layer of protection,” Manning said.
“The booster shot is important for people who have compromised immune systems or other underlying health conditions, and the elderly. But also, more generally, people who had their primary vaccination more than six months ago should receive a booster dose to enhance effectiveness.”
More than 36,000 Covid-19 cases have been recorded in Papua New Guinea since the start of the pandemic to date, with close to 600 known deaths. However, it is believed that the true number of cases is far higher, with incredibly low testing rates and widespread stigma about Covid-19.
The country suffered a huge surge of Covid-19 cases in October last year. Hospitals were pushed to the brink and morgues were overflowing, leading the government to conduct mass burials.
The country’s health care system has long been plagued by shortages of drugs, funding, an ailing infrastructure and a severe lack of health workers.
Cases have since declined. The Taurama Aquatic Centre run by the St John Ambulance in Port Moresby, which assists cater for the mild to moderate cases has stopped seeing patients around December and the chief executive Matt Cannon said that while St John Ambulance had not transported any Covid patients in the last two weeks, they were “on standby if there is any further surge.”