Dr Nathan K Kere Phd FRSTMH
Infectious Disease Epidemiologist
East Medical Centre, HONIARA

The deployment of our Pacific friends from Australia and PNG is necessary considering the very sad position we got ourselves in Honiara last week. Thanks to their governments we have these Pacific friends now helping us.

But my biggest worry is the more deadly Covid-19, the risk of which could now be higher than we ever experienced including when our leaders panicked and sent people back home and our people met unprecedented fatal consequences. I urge all authorities to sensibly continue take maximum measures to keep our society Covid-19 free.

What our people did to our capital makes it right to seek urgent help from our Pacific friends. But I am concerned that neither messages nor advice come from both the government and the National Covid-19 Oversight Committee who had till the riot been vocal almost weekly advising the public how to keep the deadly virus out.

Now the risk might increase with our Pacific friends from Australia and PNG where Covid-19 outbreaks are going on now.

What advice should the public be given on how to behave towards our foreign friends? Or how our foreign friends engage with the local people? Should they wear masks to prevent expiring the virus if one has it?

Sadly, the National Covid-19 Oversight Committee has been muted on these and should any local transmission happen and deaths that inevitably resulted will directly relate to these indecisions or lack thereof!

I learned through the media that ADF and AFP members are from Townsville that had no Covid-19 outbreak now. They are all fully vaccinated, all negative on Rapid Covid-19 Antigen tests, had PCR tests within 24 hrs. of deployment and a repeat within 48 hrs. of arrival. We also learned that our PNG friends are all fully vaccinated, had PCR tests within 24 hrs. of deployment and a repeat within 48 hrs. of arrival.

These measures are very good but still there are gaps with risks involved. Covid-19 vaccination provides protection against severe disease and death to the individual but depending on the immune response it does not totally stop people from carrying low level Covid-19 virus that can spread the infection.

Rapid Antigen Test is important as it detects the presence of live Covid-19 virus, but as the test is new its specificity and sensitivity are still going through development stages. Thus, it might result negative at early stage of a Covid-19 infection when the virus is already transmissible.

PCR test is the most accurate but as it detects Covid-19 antibodies which usually take time to develop, it might again be negative at early stage of infection, when the virus is also transmissible.

Thus, these are gaps that will pose serious risks for the virus being passed on to our local people. But as our nation has been kept FREE of local transmission of this deadly disease, I ask us not to be complacent just because we are down. We must do much more to keep the virus away. If the virus sets foot in our country, we will see more problems and deaths than the riots put together.

As I have no authority to advise, I suggest to those responsible to urgently consider instituting the following measures, in addition to what has been put in place.
• Repeat the PCR test at least weekly up to two or more weeks for all Pacific friends
• Repeat the Rapid Covid-19 antigen twice weekly to two or more weeks for all Pacific friends. If we do not have the Rapid Antigen test kits, ask Australia to provide them as a matter of some urgency
• Perform these very tests on all RSIP officers and supportive staff who work alongside our Pacific friends, AFP, ADF and PNG members. Let us not wait for a positive case before we test our local officers, as that might be too late.

Absolute prevention is not easy as we do not see the virus but hopefully on applying these, we have a good chance of detecting any Covid-19 virus that lurks in our friends and most important close all ‘windows of opportunities’ for the virus to pass on to our local population. These measures can be stopped after two weeks or so when no virus is detected. I pray we do not, but at any time one is detected the whole sequence of remedial measures must be instituted immediately and God have mercy on us if it passes on to our local population.

Also furthermore, I strongly suggest our Pacific friends and our local population must always practice a good social distance apart. I know our PNG wantoks will always mingle with the locals as in RAMSI times including for betel nuts. But this is Covid-19 Pandemic time and not RAMSI time. Social distance can be relaxed after two or three weeks when no Covid-19 virus is detected amongst our helping Pacific friends.

Even though we have problems we MUST never be complacent and do extra more to keep our population FREE from Covid-19. Otherwise, we will lose what we have excellently achieved and encounter catastrophic social and economic disaster we only see happening in other countries. My suggestion is not in any way discriminating our Pacific friends who are here to help us but facing the realities of the very serious nature of the current Covid-19 Pandemic.