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COVID cases reported on Australian aid vessel sailing to virus-free Tonga

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Members of the Australian Defence Force embark on HMAS Adelaide at the Port of Brisbane before departure to Tonga, in Brisbane, Australia, January 20, 2022. Australian Department Of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) -About two dozen cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among the crew of an Australian warship expected to arrive in coronavirus-free Tonga on Wednesday to deliver humanitarian aid, Australian authorities said on Tuesday.

Tonga, hit by a massive volcanic eruption and a tsunami on Jan. 15, has asked for aid to be delivered without human contact amid concerns a COVID outbreak would be devastating for the tiny Pacific island nation.

Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton said 23 personnel aboard the HMAS Adelaide have tested positive for COVID. The ship, with a crew of about 600, left Brisbane on Friday carrying large quantities of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, helicopters and water purification equipment, as well as an Australian Army engineer contingent.

The ship is due to arrive in Tonga early on Wednesday, the department of defence said.

“We will work with the Tongan authorities to keep that vessel at sea to make sure there is no threat and obviously the Tongan government is discussing that at the moment,” Dutton said on broadcaster Sky News.

“Obviously they need the aid desperately but they don’t want the risk of COVID.”

In a later statement, the defence department said HMAS Adelaide would continue her mission, and ensure the aid was delivered in a COVID-safe manner.

“The positive COVID cases, and close contacts, are being isolated,” a defence statement said, adding the ship had medical facilities including a 40-bed hospital with critical care ward, and COVID testing capabilities.

All crew had been vaccinated and the 23 positive COVID cases were showing no or mild symptoms, it said.

Aid flights from Australia and New Zealand arrived in Tonga last week with essential supplies, but the transfer of goods was done in a contactless way. One Australian aid flight was forced to return to base when a COVID-19 case was detected mid-flight.

A New Zealand aid vessel landed last week and more aid is en route by air and sea from New Zealand, Japan and Britain.

The United Nations, Red Cross and other relief agencies on the ground in Tonga have warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in the island would be catastrophic at this time.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed villages and resorts and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people. Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.

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