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PNG questions Chinese company claim to use COVID-19 vaccine

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Papua New Guinea prevented the arrival of a flight carrying Chinese workers after a Chinese mining company claimed to have immunized employees against COVID-19 in an apparent vaccination trial, authorities said Friday.

The Pacific nation's pandemic response controller David Manning banned COVID-19 vaccine testing or trials after Ramu NiCo Management (MCC) Ltd. claimed to have vaccinated 48 Chinese employees.

Manning also said he had sent back a flight carrying 180 Chinese workers on Thursday as a precaution.

“In light of the lack of information of what these trials are and what possible risks or threat that it might cause our people if they were to come into the country, I had cancelled that flight yesterday just to ensure that we continue to act in the best interests of our people and our country,” Manning told reporters in the capital Port Moresby.

"Until the Chinese government through the Chinese Embassy in Port Moresby provides 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 added.

Manning said the National Department of Health had not approved any trials.

“Any vaccines imported into PNG must be approved by NDoH and must go through vigorous vaccine trials, protocols and procedures," he said, and they must be pre-qualified by the World Health Organization.

A document on company letterhead entitled “Vaccination Statement” said 48 Chinese employees “have been vaccinated with SARS-COV-2 vaccine” on Aug. 10.

The statement was sent to the Papua New Guinea Health Department and advised that the vaccine could cause false-positive test results in those who received it, The Australian newspaper reported.

Manning has written to Chinese Ambassador Xue Bing seeking “immediate clarification of the Chinese government’s position regarding the vaccination statement.”

Ramu is operated by Metallurgical Corp. of China, a subsidiary of state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp.

Phone calls to Ramu’s office in the Papua New Guinea city of Madang and to the parent company's Beijing headquarters weren't answered.

Australia, which is Papua New Guinea’s largest provider of foreign aid, had learned the China may have begun trialing a coronavirus vaccine in the region using employees of state-owned enterprises, the newspaper reported.

Australian government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Companies and governments globally are racing to make a coronavirus vaccine. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed earlier this month that his country was the first to approve a vaccine, though health authorities say it's still unproven. And SinoPharm, a state-owned Chinese company, has boasted of giving experimental shots to its employees before the government approved testing in people.

Papua New Guinea is a poor country of 9 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. It has recorded only 361 COVID-19 cases and four deaths. But infections have surged in the past month, particularly in the capital Port Moresby where a curfew is being enforced as a pandemic measure.

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