Institute needs adequate funding


I AM concerned over the statement made by Prime Minister James Marape in relation to the PNG Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR) failing to undertake research into the coronavirus (Covid-19).
It appears that the prime minister has been misled, which in turn reflects on institute’s credibility.
The institute has not received any funding from the National Control Centre or the Government to undertake research into the Covid-19.
The only funding received was to support testing, which was undertaken in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, and Port Moresby.
Testing has been limited by the shortages of testing kits and other consumables, including the need to adequately fund ongoing research projects into other diseases that are of importance to the public.
According to the institute’s records, they have been performed more than 30,000 tests from all 22 provinces in Goroka and Port Moresby.
Since May, due to decentralisation of testing to provinces and global shortages of laboratory consumables, the institute has responded in several other ways.
Their scientists have developed and sourced funding from 11 Covid-19 research projects covering key biomedical, laboratory and socio-behavioural issues in Papua New Guinea.
Some of the research activities began with preliminary results expected in late this year and early next year.
It is not correct for Marape to ask research institutions and universities to go to him with a proposal.
First of all, the correct approach would be for scientific proposals to be screened, peer-reviewed and assessed for their eligibility for funding based on scientific appropriateness, merit and credibility.
It is important to understand the difference between public health research or applied research which PNGIMR does, compared to research and development (R&D), which multibillion dollar drug companies do.
Most times, the multibillion dollar companies do not find a hit drug, chemical or diagnostic tool and they end up spending a lot of resources and time in refining their search. Sometimes, their search can take up to 20 or 25 years.
PNGIMR does not have this level of resources and is not in the R&D space. If the Government is serious about R&D, it will need to seriously invest a significant amount of money every year instead of being misled into thinking we can develop drugs and vaccines overnight.
The under-resourcing of the health system in PNG is highlighted by the lack of laboratory capacity to diagnose SARS-CoV2.
More than 17,655 cases and 192 deaths have been reported today, many more are likely to be recorded in the months ahead with the new Delta variant already identified in PNG, which will further impose real challenges for our health system.
The current death rate in Indonesia, our closest neighbour, is over 2,000 per day.
Fiji, a brother Melanesian country with 60 per cent vaccination, is seriously being challenged with the Delta variant.
In Australia, the cities of Sydney and Melbourne are in full lockdown for what is being reported for at least 4 weeks.
A leading PNG physician thanked me and my team for the strong stance to paving a way forward for all businesses and the public to follow.
When we do not have the capacity to contain such outbreaks, epidemics and pandemic, the only option is vaccination.
We, in PNG, have less than 0.06 per cent of our population vaccinated and testing.
Vaccination and testing have come to a standstill, which has prompted the notion that the spread is declining when the exact opposite is occurring.
Those provinces indicating the highest positive cases indicate that more tests were carried out as opposed to the provinces with lower positive cases and not undertaking testing, which is providing false data.
The issue of blood clots with the AstraZeneca vaccine indicates 0.004 per cent in 1 million vaccinations; the birth control pill indicates 500-1,200 cases out of 1 million women; smoking has 1,763 deaths in 1 million smokers, representing 0.18 per cent and the unvaccinated Covid-19 infection shows 165,000 cases in 1 million people, which represents 16.5 per cent.
Given these facts, one should not question being vaccinated with AstraZeneca.
In my capacity as former Health minister and later as chairman of the National Aids Council, we failed miserably in testing to really know the prevalence and even today, whilst the emphasis is on the Covid-19, the spread of HIV/AIDS remains rampant to an extent that we don’t know
It appears to have gone off the radar.
We cannot afford to let this happen with the Covid-19.
In Madang, the PNGIMR base has been struggling to obtain their laboratory functioning due to lack of funding.
All test samples were taken by road to Goroka, others to Port Moresby with the turn-round rate extended beyond 14-21 days.
Madang Airport is now closed for three weeks, which is further hampering testing even if the GeneXpert and rapid antigen (RDT) tests consumables were available.
The reality is with such low testing data, it is impossible to know with any certainty how many people test positive.
Without this information, there is no way in which we can predict the future and hope for PNG.
The Melanesian Foundation published two editions of the Covid-19 question and answer booklet written by Prof Glen Mola with help of Ok Tedi Mining Ltd and Kumul Petroleum Holdings Ltd and the Australian government.
A total of 200,000 copies have been sitting in Port Moresby, awaiting the release of funds from the National Control Centre or the Health Department to send to provinces.
Such information is badly needed to provide accurate information and put an end to all the misinformation being disseminated on social media.
These books have now been waiting to be airfreighted for more than a month. Questions are being raised about the help the private sector is providing with the pandemic.
The protocols in place in PNG which include wearing face mask, social distancing, washing hands and placing people in isolation have largely failed and the only real hope is to implement vaccination on a massive scale, if necessary, through a less democratic system whereby the public need to recognise that it is not just about their lives, but the lives of their family and wantoks that could be infected.
This is a personal view, which may not necessarily be endorsed by PNGIMR, but offers a solution which will restore the economy and normalcy we once enjoyed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
What infuriates me as a citizen is the criticism of the PNGIMR, which was initially established as the Institute of Human Biology in 1968.
PNGIMR has conducted excellent research that has saved countless lives throughout PNG.
Lives were saved from malaria, kuru, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, hepatitis A and B, tetanus, influenza, rubella, mumps, diphtheria, elephantiasis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, polio, cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.
These diseases have been controlled, thanks to vaccines through research not only in PNG, but internationally.
PNGIMR is one of the success stories, it has won international recognition for the research carried out and in the case of kuru disease, have won the Nobel Prize.
Each year, they hold a symposium attended by scientists from all over the world.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s symposium will be done virtually on Thursday.
This year’s symposium will highlight some of the impactful research that has been conducted in recent years.
PNGIMR has invited the prime minister to attend and open the symposium.
As patron of the institute, I do not profess to be a scientist, but I have worked alongside the institute for more than 50 years in Goroka, Maprik and Madang.
I have witnessed what has been achieved and I trust the prime minister and other leaders will take time to learn more about the wonderful achievements and ways in which we can handle similar pandemics in the future together and provide us all a brighter future.

Sir Peter Barter, chairman,
Melanesian Foundation