science

Some Pacific countries will take years to vaccinate 50% of adult population, modelling shows


Some Pacific countries will have less than a quarter of adults vaccinated by the end of the year, with predictions that Papua New Guinea will take five years to vaccinate just one-third of its population, undermining economic recovery and threatening huge loss of life across the region.

The predictions come from modelling released on Sunday by the Lowy Institute, which takes into account factors including access to vaccines, numbers of healthcare workers, urbanisation, topography and vaccine hesitancy to estimate when Pacific countries will hit key vaccine milestones.

The modelling reveals a divided region. Papua New Guinea, which is in the midst of a devastating Delta outbreak, currently has around 3% of its adult population vaccinated.

Solomon Islands is predicted to have just 23% of its adult population vaccinated by the end of the year, with Vanuatu predicted to have just 29% of adults fully vaccinated.

“Looking at what was happening in PNG and the rest of Melanesia shocked me a little bit,” said Alexandre Dayant, the lead author of the model. “According to our model, PNG wouldn’t get to more than 36% of its adult population by August 2026. This is very concerning. It raises a big question: what will happen to countries that are not getting fully vaccinated in the future. Are they going to be the pariahs of this world?”

Vaccine rollout in the Pacific

However, many smaller Pacific nations reached almost 100% vaccine coverage months ago, supported by partner nations such as the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Palau, in the north Pacific, has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 99% of its adult population fully vaccinated. The country of nearly 20,000 people is now rolling out booster shots.

Similarly, Nauru, Niue, Cook Islands and Tuvalu have close to 100% of their adult populations fully vaccinated.

The research also looked at supply of vaccines to the region from donor countries. Australia has committed to provide 11.4m doses – 66% of the region’s supply – with Covax committing 4.5m doses, followed by New Zealand, China, the US and India.

“The issue is not vaccine supply, it’s vaccine demand,” said Dayant. “One of the biggest reasons for vaccine hesitancy is misinformation.

“Misinformation spread much faster than the virus in the Pacific. One of the big issues in the Pacific is that social media is a key source of information … This undermines the effort that the international community is making to inject the vaccine into people’s arms.”

Vaccine commitments in the Pacific

However, Dayant said that messaging in Australia around the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the fact that huge quantities of it were donated to Papua New Guinea even as health officials cautioned against its use in those under the age of 60 in Australia, undermined confidence in the vaccine in Pacific countries.

“Some of them were saying: ‘Hold on, if it’s not good enough for Australian people, why should we take it?’”

Many Pacific countries have remained largely Covid-free throughout the pandemic by keeping their borders closed to international arrivals, something that has come at enormous economic cost to tourism-dependent economies.

Fiji, one of the largest and most developed Pacific countries, had a very serious Delta outbreak in the middle of 2021, recording more than 50,000 cases in a country of just under 1 million people, and nearly 700 deaths.

Just 8% of Fijian adults were fully vaccinated in June 2021, when the outbreak began, but an ambitious vaccine rollout program, and a controversial “no jab, no job” policy, saw vaccination rates skyrocket. As of Friday, 90% of adults in Fiji were fully immunised and more than 97% of adults had received at least one dose. The country plans to reopen quarantine-free travel to tourists from some countries, including Australia, in December.



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