Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. Photo: Glenn Hunt
The Australian government has been warned a $38 million medical aid project in Papua New Guinea could be used to foist deadly counterfeit drugs onto some of the Pacific nation's poorest villagers.
Department of Foreign Affairs bureaucrats in Canberra are refusing to say whether Australia will continue to bankroll the distribution network despite warnings from PNG's medical community of corruption allegations surrounding the project.
Local firm Borneo Pacific Pharmaceuticals has won the $28 million contract to supply medical kits to the PNG government with Australian aid and then send the drugs to aid posts and medical centres around the country.
Internal DFAT documents obtained by Fairfax Media identify Borneo Pacific as PNG's largest provider of drugs from manufacturer North China Pharmaceutical Group, a known offender in the nation's fake drug crisis.
PNG's medical society alleges Borneo Pacific ''is renowned for giving presents to people in the government procurement system'', has branded the process ''corrupt'' and has warned that counterfeit medicines supplied under the deal could kill and maim.
The revelations come despite promises to clean up the PNG Health Department's drug supply division, described in 2011 by its minister as ''riddled with corruption''. The internal DFAT documents show officials knew Borneo Pacific did not hold the required standards accreditation to compete in the tender and were worried when the requirement was removed by PNG's Secretary of Health after the tender deadline.
The same document shows Belgium's non-profit IDA group, which holds all the required accreditations, offered to supply their high-quality ''100 per cent'' kits, for $8 million less than Borneo Pacific's bid.
An internal DFAT review of the health kits program by the Burnet Institute, tells of the IDA drugs supplied by Australian aid being saved for the most desperately ill villagers by doctors and nurses who distrust the locally supplied drugs.
The draft Burnet report warns of a ''serious problem'' of ''transparency and accountability'' at national level in drugs supply and procurement.
The distribution scheme, part of Australia's $38 million PNG Health and HIV Procurement Program, has been lauded as a success in its first three years.
But AusAID, before its takeover by DFAT, warned it would walk away if unhappy with the governance surrounding the program's next round.
In Canberra this week, officials from DFAT were trying to enforce an information black-out on the fate of the taxpayer-funded project.
''Detailed information on the priorities of the aid program - including arrangements for funding the distribution of medical supplies - will be provided by the government in due course,'' a spokeswoman said.
Professor Nakapi Tefuarani, of the Medical Society of PNG, was more blunt about the program's future.
''It seems that this year the process will be corrupt once again,'' Professor Tefuarani said.
He warned of the dangers of Australia's aid agency walking away from the distribution network, calling on PNG Prime Minister Sir Peter O'Neill to reverse the award of the tender.
''We will be left with local 'wantok' distribution companies sending out low-quality and possibly counterfeit medicines to our hospitals and health centres,'' the professor said.
''This will lead to the deaths of many Papua New Guineans and also much disability. We must all say no.''
Mr O'Neill, guest of honour at the opening of Pacific Borneo's new Port Moresby warehouse in September, did not respond to a detailed set of questions about the tender and his relationship with the company's owners.
In response to accusations in the PNG Parliament this month that medical kits deal bypassed the nation's Central Supply and Tenders Board, Mr O'Neill defended the process.
Local media reported the Prime Minister saying the deal went through ''a rather rigorous approval process'' in which it was sighted and approved by the pharmaceutical and medical boards, the Department of Health and the National Executive Council. A detailed set of questions was sent to the company but no response has been received.