Papua New Guinea has approved nearly $ 3 million from its spent budget for still-unidentified Covid-19 treatment – by allocating the money to an unknown biomedical company that was formed in August.
Prime Minister James Marape has insisted that the national executive board has not completed its approval process to hire a PNG company to find a cure, but leaked cabinet documents appear to show 10.2 million Kina ($ 2.85 million) has been awarded to Niugini BioMed Ltd for research into finding a new treatment for Covid-19 infections from existing drugs.
The firm’s submission, which ran on the front page of a national newspaper, claimed that a team from the University of Papua New Guinea had “scanned and analyzed” 30,000 known drugs around the world to identify 10 potential treatments.
“The team is convinced that this discovery could potentially be used as a treatment for Covid-19 infections,” said the submission dated October 20.
The submission, signed by Marape, “orders ministers, the Treasury and finance to immediately make 10.2 million Kina available for the purchase of Covid-19 drugs, the start of treatment for patients with Covid-19 in the country”.
He also instructs the national health department to establish a collaboration with Niugini BioMed “to immediately carry out treatments and clinical trials”.
While treatment of Covid-19 has improved globally since the pandemic outbreak, which has lowered death rates, there is no vaccine for the virus. Several potential vaccines are being tested internationally.
Marape said there was “nothing illegal or objectionable” about the government hiring PNG chemists, biologists and doctors to research possible vaccines against Covid-19.
Marape said, “We have young scientists who are knowledgeable in PNG, who have presented their cases to the Covid-19 controller… and our medical and scientific community, so that they are on to something big.
“It may be true, or vice versa, but I’m not a prime minister to kill ingenuity, research, science and study. We are a nation of immense biodiversity… our ancestors lived with malaria, snakebites and all kinds of tropical diseases.
“I am sure we can find new medicines, in the midst of all this biodiversity, in our blessed land.
Marape retaliated against those who condemned the agreement.
“To my critics; don’t think i’m stupid. I know exactly what I want to do for my country. “
Health Minister Sir Puka Temu told the Guardian he supported the submission, saying PNG had not spent enough money to seek treatment for the coronavirus. He said his department would ensure that BioMed’s research “is done properly, [and] meets global scientific research standards ”.
Devastated by Covid-19 shutdowns, PNG’s budget is under intense pressure. The government is asking for an additional US $ 100 million to a US $ 310 million emergency loan from Australia last year, and still has unpaid debts, including a massive retirement bill, of more than $ 770 million.
PNG opposition leader Belden Namah said it was irresponsible of the cabinet – and risked a “total waste of funds” – to support a brand new company with no track record of research and production of drugs to find a cure for the coronavirus.
Niugini BioMed chairman Dr Bomai Kerenga argued that every country must defend itself against the Covid-19 pandemic, and PNG was no exception.
“For this reason, we have mobilized a team of highly qualified and talented doctors and scientists to seek a cure for Covid-19 among generic drugs.”
He said the company was formed in August to protect its research and intellectual property and obtained the genomic data for the coronavirus.
“We need this information to develop a vaccine and identify drugs to reuse for treatment against Covid-19.”
PNG has only recorded 589 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with seven deaths. But the actual infection rate is likely much higher, with dangerously low testing rates across the country.