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COVID-19 outbreak shutters huge Papua New Guinea mine

PORT MORESBY: A coronavirus outbreak has forced the closure of a major Papua New Guinea mine, its operator said on Thursday (Aug 6), as the virus spreads to a remote corner of one of the Pacific's poorest nations.

Ok Tedi Mining said it had decided "to immediately suspend operations for at least 14 days" after seven cases were detected at the facility near the Indonesian border.

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The copper and gold mine sits in the remote Papua New Guinea highlands, employs thousands of people and accounts for around seven per cent of the country's GDP, according to company figures.

It is believed the virus was brought to the area by a mine worker arriving from the now locked-down capital Port Moresby more than 800km away, where authorities are struggling to contain several rapidly growing clusters.

"The employee is currently working in our operations, travelling to and from work on buses," Ok Tedi said in a statement.

"It is likely that more people have been infected, giving rise to an unacceptable risk of accelerated transmission within the Ok Tedi workforce."

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The firm said it hopes to use the next 14 days to limit further transmission through extensive "contact tracing, isolation and testing".

The mine began operations in 1984 and, despite long-running environmental problems, remains vital to the Papua New Guinea economy, providing the government with much-needed tax revenue.

It is one of the largest mines in a sector that – along with natural gas – makes up around 10 per cent of the government's revenue, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a watchdog group.

In 2018, extractives accounted for 89 per cent of Papua New Guinea's total exports by value and a third of total GDP.

The mine's closure came as Papua New Guinea authorities reported a record 39 new virus cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 153.

Papua New Guinea's coronavirus outbreak has spread beyond the capital, Port Moresby. (AFP/SAEED KHAN)

Until recently the country had been spared a serious coronavirus outbreak. Almost all cases have been detected in the last few weeks.

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