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Papua New Guinea bars Chinese workers in vaccine trial over virus risk - paper

BEIJING/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea has denied entry to Chinese nationals who participated in a COVID-19 vaccine trial, the Australian newspaper said on Friday, as the Pacific nation battles a worsening outbreak of the respiratory disease.

The workers had been due to fly from the northern city of Tianjin to the Ramu NiCo plant in northern Papua New Guinea run by state-run Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd (MCC).

The Australian said David Manning, Papua New Guinea’s head of disaster management, denied access for the workers after being told of the vaccinations, however, and sent a strongly worded letter to China’s ambassador, Xue Bing.

“The government of PNG demands and deserves to fully understand (the) vaccine development and SARS-CoV-2 vaccine immunisation program undertaken in China and its potential risks,” the Australian quoted Manning as saying, before Chinese travel requests could be approved.

“The Ramu workers didn’t get a Papua New Guinea entry permit,” a source with knowledge of the plant’s operations told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “The Tianjin flight was cancelled and employees have gone back home to rest.”

A senior Ramu official, who asked not to be identified, added, “Production is normal. There is no staff shortage problem.”

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing he was not aware of the matter. China’s MCC did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Ramu had told Papua New Guinea health authorities that 48 staff received the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine on August 10, PNG news station NBC said.

Health officials are on tenterhooks after a steep jump in infections in the past month threatens to overun the healthcare system in Papua New Guinea, which largely avoided the first wave.

A further death took the official toll to four, with two new cases pushing the tally of infections to 361 by Thursday, Manning said in a statement.

However, health officials fear the real number could be much higher, as infections spread to regions beyond the capital of Port Moresby.

“The national department of health (NDoH) has not approved any vaccine trials in PNG,” Manning said on Friday.

“Any vaccines imported into PNG must be approved by NDoH and must go through vigorous vaccine trials, protocols and procedures,” he said in a statement, adding that trials must also be approved by the World Health Organization.

Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne, Tom Daly in Beijing and Tom Westbrook in Singapore; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez