BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah has underscored the need to ensure countries have equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available.

During his virtual meetings with leaders of ASEAN and its dialogue partners on Saturday, the monarch called on countries to work closely in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine and treatments.

The development of a COVID-19 vaccine received a boost when American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech this week said early results of their vaccine showed a 90 percent effectiveness against the coronavirus.

While dozens of COVID-19 vaccines are in development, its distribution raises questions on who will get the vaccine first and at what cost.

Brunei joined Gavi, a global vaccine alliance earlier this year to provide about 20 percent of the population with the coronavirus vaccine.

A total of 184 countries have signed up to the COVID-19 global vaccine alliance.

‘Keep trade open during pandemic’

Delivering his titah at the ASEAN Plus Three Summit, the monarch said it is important to maintain economic continuity to enable a swift recovery from the pandemic.

He said countries need to ensure that goods and services are readily available, supply chains are open and connected, and businesses are able to continue operating.

In addition, His Majesty said ASEAN Plus Three countries – which includes China, Japan and South Korea – can consider establishing travel arrangements that allow the necessary and safe movement of people.

Later at the 15th East Asia Summit, the sultan said pan-Asian countries can achieve a wide-scale recovery from the pandemic given the region’s vast population size and strong economy.

Encouraging greater cooperation to tackle cybersecurity challenges, His Majesty added that the pandemic has increased people’s dependence on technology for essential services, leading to a rise in cyber crime and the use of social media to promote violent extremism and disinformation.

His Majesty the Sultan during the virtual ASEAN-US Summit. Photo: Infofoto

ASEAN agrees to improve free trade pact with Australia, New Zealand

Meanwhile, ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand have agreed to launch negotiations to upgrade their free trade agreement in early 2021.

In a joint statement, the leaders of the 12 countries said an improved free trade deal will deliver “tangible benefits” to businesses, consumers and people.

The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area agreement first entered into force in 2010, where 90 percent of tariffs were gradually reduced.

The 10 ASEAN member states, Australia and New Zealand have a combined population of 663 million people and a gross domestic product of US$4 trillion in 2016.

His Majesty welcomed the move to upgrade the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade accord, saying that it would bring better benefits to businesses and people.

Joining the ASEAN-US Summit, the monarch said the US’s strategic engagement with the regional bloc remains crucial to ensuring peace, security and prosperity in the region.

His Majesty said ASEAN appreciated US’s commitment in improving medical and health capacities in the region and called for close cooperation with the US to provide affordable and effective COVID-19 vaccines for all ASEAN member states.

US national security adviser Robert O’Brien attended the meeting on behalf of president Donald Trump, who skipped the meeting for the third straight year.

Vietnam hosted the ASEAN meetings this year, which took place online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.