Chris Barrett, Singapore – Health experts are urging the Morrison government to accelerate its delivery of doses to East Timor amid a deepening crisis there that has led China's vaccine diplomacy to reach Australia's doorstep.
South-east Asia's youngest nation is in the midst of its most serious battle with the coronavirus at the same time that it is still recovering from last month's catastrophic floods and landslides. More than 3300 people remain in emergency shelters.
Australia's first batch of 20,000 AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Dili on a Qantas flight on Wednesday. Australian government sources confirmed similar sized shipments were planned on a fortnightly basis.
But with new cases peaking at more than 100 per day twice in the past fortnight and four people dying in a new wave that coincided with the devastation of Cyclone Seroja, health experts are urging Australia to help speed up the country's vaccine rollout.
The Australian government last month pledged to support East Timor and other neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea. In a statement on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja, reiterated Australia would procure stocks of up to 6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses for the Pacific and Timor-Leste in 2021 under a partnership agreement with UNICEF.
This was in addition to Australia's $80 million contribution to the multilateral COVAX initiative that provides vaccines to developing nations, they said.
But with East Timor having only received 25,000 doses through COVAX before Australia's shipment on Wednesday, China has chimed in with a promise of 100,000 units of its Sinovac vaccine.
Ian Kemish, a regional policy expert and former senior Australian diplomat, said Australia needed "to be careful about a Chinese attempt to opportunistically seek to gain influence in our near neighbour". It should remain focused on ensuring the health and wellbeing of a partner country, he said.
If supply was not an issue in East Timor, the country could have its adult population of 750,000 fully vaccinated in just four months.
Josh Francis, an Australian doctor with the Menzies School of Health Research who is helping health authorities in locked-down Dili, said Australia had demonstrated great generosity in providing vaccines and other assistance but the issue was timing.
"It's one of those countries where a well-timed vaccine program that rolls out quickly could make an enormous difference in terms of saving lives," Francis said.
"[The virus] is really taking off. There is a higher proportion of tests each day through the laboratory that are positive."
He said he was pushing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which backs the Menzies School of Health Research, to hurry up.
"I want the vaccine program to roll out smoothly in Australia but I look at it and think the CSL factory is getting close to being able to pump out a million doses a week" he said.
"From my point of view I think Australia could afford to send doses quickly rather than space them out. Not just to [East Timor] but potentially to other countries."
It is a position endorsed by Robert Booy, an infectious diseases and vaccine specialist at the University of Sydney.
"Australia is in a very privileged position of being at extremely low risk of disease," he said. "We really should do much better and much faster than we currently are."
Whether China's offer of help will have any impact on the speed of Australia's assistance is not yet clear.
Kemish, however, believes Australia can be confident in its long-standing links with the health sectors of its neighbours.
"Australia should remain committed to its long-term partnerships in the region and not be distracted by Chinese opportunism," he said. "The wellbeing of East Timor is in our interest too."
The government statement said its initial vaccine delivery to East Timor built on 56 tonnes of humanitarian, medical and PPE supplies sent last month. It said 10,000 vaccine doses would also be flown to Fiji this week.